Wes Vernon
August 21, 2006
Tom Kean: The politics of inclusion, the 9/11 Commission & the U.S. senator who might have been
By Wes Vernon

Thomas Howard Kean, a Republican, is the last governor of New Jersey to leave office with his head held high.

His successors left legacies of either defeat (Florio-D); sowing over-the-top discord (Whitman-R); ethics questions (DiFrancesco-R); scandal (McGreevy-D); or failure to compete with big money (Codey-D). The jury is still out on current Governor Corzine (D), who is off to a rocky start.

Alvin Felzenberg has written a biography of a truly reform-oriented governor. Governor Kean's track record for uniting the ethnic, racial, cultural, and political mix that is the state of New Jersey was by any standard amazing.

Up front, know this: Tom Kean, the central figure in Governor Tom Kean: From the New Jersey Statehouse to the 9-11 Commission is no movement conservative, and does not claim to be. At the same time, he is no liberal in the Javits or Rockefeller mold. While many conservatives would disagree with him on abortion, gun control, and school prayer, Kean's record on tax cuts, education reform, welfare reform, and restoring the death penalty would put him slightly, though certainly not sharply, to the right of center. Differences of opinion do not detract from the widely-held respect for him, his political skills, and his leadership abilities. Conservatives gave him their support. They were a part of his coalition.

Author Felzenberg was Principal Spokesman for the 9/11 Commission which Kean chaired. Earlier, he had served the governor in other capacities. That would give rise to the question of whether his close friendship with his subject distorts the judgment he brings to the biography. But Felzenberg is very factual. His own judgments end up mostly in the epilogue.

My own impressions of Kean stem in large part from having covered him as a reporter at governor's conferences, at Republican national conventions, having him as a guest twice on my half-hour radio show "Crosstalk," and in covering New Jersey-related news in Washington for CBS Radio. I was also struck by the high quality of those of his appointees whom I met.

What comes through in Felzenberg's tome is a very self-confident politician with extraordinary people skills. He kept his party's base, while reaching out to non-Republican groups.

All of that paid off politically for him big time. In 1985, Kean was re-elected to a second term with nearly 70 percent of the vote, the largest margin in the state's history. He got 60 percent of the black vote phenomenal for a Republican. He won over other non-Republicans such as Hispanics, union members, and Jews. Kean carried all 21 counties in the state and all but 3 of the 567 municipalities. He even won in such Democrat strongholds as Newark and East Orange.

Kean is surely not the first politician with the seeming ability to charm a bird out of a tree. He worked well with President Reagan most of whose White House days paralleled Kean's two terms at the statehouse in Trenton in part because they both won the trust of their constituents who could see that their communications skills were backed with sincerity and a clear vision of what they wished to accomplish. Reagan in major national addresses singled out Governor Kean's leadership in such areas as education and welfare.

For much of his governorship, Kean had to deal with a Democrat legislature, some of whose leaders engaged in total obstructionism of his agenda. But the governor had cut his political teeth in the state assembly, where he himself had served as Speaker, and he knew how to form coalitions with those Democrats with whom he could work.

The chapter "The Education Governor" describes how Governor Kean bucked the teachers' unions to see to it that kids were not cheated by being stuck in "lousy schools." His program enabled the state to take over school districts that were rife with corruption, incompetence, and nepotism, but with very little emphasis on actual learning.

As a former educator himself, Kean had taken methodology courses at Columbia University. He considered them worthless. As governor, he had this quaint notion that a teacher's first priority should be to master the subject he teaches.

To that end, the governor and his education commissioner, Saul Cooperman, pushed an alternate certification program. New teachers would have to pass nationally-devised tests in their respective fields. The program also included "provisional teachers," most of whom came from other professions or private schools. This first of its kind operation was so successful, other states followed its lead. Margaret Thatcher's government sent a delegation from Great Britain to observe the New Jersey plan.

Alvin Felzenberg gives the reader many behind-the-scenes accounts of Tom Kean, the politician. This includes the back-and-forth negotiations that led to the governor's keynote address at the GOP's national convention in 1988 in New Orleans. It was at the same time an uplifting speech and also one with the expected red meat for the party loyalists. Some of the Bush people wanted him to make the speech even tougher on the Democrat's candidate, Mike Dukakis. Kean preferred to strike an even balance, and let it be known that if George H.W. Bush's people pushed him too far, perhaps they could find someone else to do the keynote.

Last but by no means least Governor Tom Kean deals with the (by then) former governor's chairmanship years later of the 9/11 commission, an era with which the author was thoroughly involved as commission spokesman.

Here, Kean appointed panel chairman by President George W. Bush forged an astounding consensus on the commission's final report. He knew Americans had dozens of questions in their minds as to how such a murderous attack on the United States could have happened and what could be done to see to it that it won't happen again or if it does, that we will have done everything humanly possible to avoid it.

What made the consensus "astounding" was that while the Republicans sent to the bipartisan commission reasonable people like Kean, the Democrats sent in their worst attack dogs (except for the thoughtful vice-chairman Lee Hamilton). The attack dogs badgered then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and she as they say "gave as good as she got." So too did then Attorney General John Ashcroft when he testified. Some observers began to describe the hearings as a "circus." Most of the testimony was behind closed doors, but the chairman believed a few open public hearings were necessary to help focus Americans on the panel's ultimate reform recommendations.

Ashcroft revealed during his testimony that one of the Democrat attack dogs on the panel, Jamie Gorelick, had hampered communications between U.S. intelligence and law enforcement when she was the No. 2 person at the Clinton Justice Department. Critics were quick to point out that Gorelick's "stovepipe" approach to intelligence "went beyond legal requirements in separating law enforcement and intelligence agencies," to quote Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. It was argued that if these agencies had not been forbidden to talk to each other, 9/11 might not have happened. Gorelick's explanation that she was actually "trying to gain greater flexibility for the FBI" fails the laugh test.

"Stovepipe" Gorelick, who had been very high-handed and vicious in her questioning of Rice, was noticeably more subdued publicly after her own problems came to light.

Chairman Kean spent days rebuffing demands that she resign from the commission. Felzenberg writes that following Ashcroft's testimony, Stovepipe (my own nickname for Gorelick, not the author's) started to phone Tom Daschle, who was instrumental in having her appointed to the 9/11 panel. Kean dissuaded her. He may have envisioned the already gathering political storm going nuclear, complete with Daschle rushing to the Senate floor to condemn the commission as a partisan witch-hunt.

Since the liberal media have a different standard for Democrat witch-hunts than for Republican ones (real or alleged), Kean had two bad choices: Demand her resignation and see the Clinton-supporting media smear machine trash the commission's credibility, or defend her and let the uproar take its course. As it was, the chairman had to battle a Dan Rather-Randall Pinkston report on CBS that "sandbagged" him (Kean's words) so as to leave the false impression he was accusing the Bush administration of wrongdoing.

I don't agree with the decision the chairman made on Gorelick, but I understand it. He obviously believed getting out a report that relieved public anxiety and carried some public relations heft with serious people trumped whatever was to be gained by further spotlighting Gorelick's embarrassment.

Same thing with Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger's walking out of the National Archive, stuffing his pants with documents pertaining to issues the commission was investigating. The panel decided to leave that one to the prosecutors. Felzenberg as spokesman said the Berger case would have no bearing on the final report.

We will probably never know exactly what embarrassing revelation Berger deleted. We can only surmise that it was related to the Clinton administration's policy of letting the good times roll and kicking the can down the road so another administration could pick up the pieces.

The 9/11 Report was a best seller for months on end. After all is said and done, Kean had passed the toughest test yet of his skills at uniting warring factions, albeit not without a price.

The jury is still out on whether the commission recommendations that were implemented have enhanced our security or simply created more jobs. My own gut feeling is there are pluses and minuses. At least one person who gained a position in the process reportedly has enough time on his hands that he feels comfortable taking two-hour lunches, complete with a massage.

An analysis of Governor Tom Kean would not be complete without the question of why he did not seek elective office after leaving the governorship. His repeated agonizing over whether to run for the United States Senate where some of his ancestors had served became a regular election-year ritual.

Several factors were at play in that. For one thing, he had returned to the education profession, and liked it. As president of Drew University, he is very popular with students and faculty alike. And as a "people person," he has enjoyed interacting with them.

Secondly, on at least one of the four occasions by my count in Felzenberg's book when Kean considered a Senate run, he was discouraged by Governor Christie Whitman, who had settled on another candidate to carry the GOP banner that year. Whitman later wrote a book titled It's My Party Too," which would have been more appropriately named "It's My Party, and Don't You Forget It."

Yet another factor in Kean's ultimate decision not to try for the U.S. Senate was his responsibility as a good family man. His wife Debby joked on the day her husband stepped down from the governorship that she was thinking of setting off fireworks in celebration, according to Felzenberg.

Debby Kean's preference for the relative predictability of life out of politics and her own desire to shun the limelight were well known. Nonetheless on the two occasions that I did see her in a political setting with the governor, she fit right in and was very outgoing and gracious. At a celebration at a private residence in the Washington area just prior to the Reagan inauguration, and again at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, you would never have suspected that beneath it all, she was not overly enchanted with the political whirl.

There are many Washington wives who would probably like to have a conversation with Debby Kean to learn her secret for persuading her politician husband to stick close to home and hearth. One of Kean's fellow New Jerseyans, Congressman Rob Andrews, gave me some insight on the problem during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1996. Andrews and his wife Camille were very surprised when I asked them how they were able to make family time for their (then) small children.

They were intrigued by the question, because in all their interactions in political life, I was the first person who had asked them about that, or apparently even acknowledged that family life was all that important in a politician's schedule. Washington is a world all its own. Rob and Camille Andrews explained how they did in fact block out family time for the kids. Not all politicians do that, and it is the spouses who pay the price.

As for the Kean family tradition in the U.S. Senate? That has not necessarily been broken either. The former governor's son, Tom Kean, Jr., is running for that office this fall, and has a reasonable chance of winning. He has been serving in the New Jersey State Senate. Tom Kean, Sr.'s, father, Robert Kean, served in Congress for twenty years (1938-1958), but did not live quite long enough to see his son's wildly successful governorship.

Al Felzenberg has provided a fascinating insight into the career of a politician whose family's public service had dated back to pre-revolutionary times. It is also a page-turning account of political drama of immense interest in New Jersey and beyond. Some would-be politicians might see this volume as it as a "how-to" book. It deserves widespread readership.

© Wes Vernon

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