First lady’s considerable political and diplomatic skills were on display in Asia

At time when she is being floated as potential candidate for U.S. Senate, Tammy Murphy impresses key leaders in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan

One by one, as diplomatic protocol dictates, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida greeted each member of the New Jersey delegation with a handshake and a small bow during a visit last Tuesday at Kantei, the prime minister’s official residence.

The members in the reception line graciously returned the greeting, with some offering a short phrase they had learned for just that moment.

First lady Tammy Murphy responded with a few substantive sentences — delivered in perfect Japanese.

“She greeted the prime minister in extensive Japanese,” said someone who was at the event but not authorized to speak publicly about it. “I have no idea what she said, but I know it impressed the heck out of the prime minister.”

Murphy, who was an exchange student to Japan decades ago, made sure the prime minister’s first impression was a lasting one.

“You could tell it had impact; he clearly was impressed by her,” the person said.

Gov. Phil Murphy gets enormous credit for his ability to get a meeting with the governmental leader of all three stops (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) that the New Jersey delegation made on the 2023 New Jersey East Asia Economic Mission trip that ended Sunday.

It is a credit to his personality and the relationships that the governor made during previous roles as a U.S. ambassador and a global business leader. But, numerous people at these meetings — most of whom asked for anonymity due to the political protocol involved — said the first lady was an equal presence in the closed-room discussions.

“Make no mistake, Tammy is a force in these meetings,” another person said. “The Murphys always have viewed themselves as a power couple — and that was evident all week.”

The trip to East Asia has been in the works for more than a year. You could say many years, since the first planned effort was delayed by the pandemic. As it turns out, the timing couldn’t have been better politically. For Tammy Murphy, that is.

Many believe U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) may eventually resign due to his recent indictment involving bribery. Some were skeptical when the first lady’s name was floated as a possible successor (which would be hand-picked by the governor). But she also is noted as a potential candidate when Menendez’s seat comes up next November.

Tammy Murphy showed during the economic mission trip that she is more than ready for the international spotlight. The first lady made a huge impression throughout.

Consider the visit with South Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol.

The governor and first lady were at the White House in April for the now-notable state dinner with South Korea in which Yoon belted out the famed sing-a-long song, “American Pie,” by Don McLean.

When it came time to present a gift on this trip, the Murphys presented Yoon with a poster autographed by the singer. It was the only gift of the trip that did not come with a specific New Jersey connection — but it certainly hit the mark.

Yoon extended what was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting into one that lasted 45 minutes, an included a trip upstairs in the presidential residence to see the great view of the city. It offered the opportunity for the first lady to offer up another great anecdote.

Tammy Murphy detailed a story about how her father — who was one of the first Hyundai dealers in the U.S. — once told Hyundai officials in the 1980s that they should name a car after the place in which they were meeting with key U.S. dealers.

Decades later, everyone is familiar with the Hyundai Santa Fe.

In Taiwan, the impact of a dinner the Murphys had when President Tsai Ing-wen visited the U.S. earlier this year was apparent when they met for dinner.

“There clearly was a comfort level there,” the person said.

It all stems from the diplomatic skills of the governor and the first lady.

“The Murphys are able to work a room as well as anyone,” one person said. “It starts with the fact they are warm and gracious people, but when you add in the experience that came from hosting key figures when the governor served as the ambassador to Germany, they become a unique power couple.”

The first lady stood on her own during the trip, too.

A running joke throughout the mission was how the governor’s party was running a parallel schedule with the few dozen business and academic leaders that accompanied him — often ducking out of large public events to go to private meetings.

The truth is, the governor and first lady often ran parallel schedules, too. Tammy Murphy spoke with groups on topics that have long been important to her: women’s health and women in the workplace. She also addressed a group of students at one of the top women’s universities in Japan.

For those in the governor’s inner circle, the biggest surprise on the trip may be that others didn’t fully understand just how impactful the first lady has been throughout the governor’s time in office.

“The first lady has her own issues and initiatives,” one person said. “That’s important.”

Another insider said it is what makes them unique — and what could make them remain a force after the governor finishes his term in a little over two years.

“They are a team,” the person said. “And, if you’re asking me if the first lady is ready for a bigger role moving forward, the answer is ‘Yes.’ She certainly showed all of her political and diplomatic skills this week.”