Governor Tom Kean: From the New Jersey Statehouse to the 9-11 Commission

Governor Tom Kean: From the New Jersey Statehouse to the 9-11 Commission

Governor Tom Kean: From the New Jersey Statehouse to the 9-11 Commission

Governor Tom Kean: From the New Jersey Statehouse to the 9-11 Commission


Long before Bill Clinton spoke of "triangulation," a term that referred to a centrist governing style, prior to Tony Blair repositioning the British Labor Party midway between Thatcher conservatism and militant trade unionism, and far ahead of George W. Bush referring to his agenda as "compassionate conservatism," there was Tom Kean. From the moment of his election to the New Jersey state assembly in 1967, through his guidance of the 9/11 Commission nearly three decades later, Kean consistently displayed a knack for bipartisan leadership.

In this first political biography of one of the nation's most popular and successful governors, Alvin S. Felzenberg tells the story of a remarkable career that culminated in an unexpected and crucial contribution to the country-chairmanship of the 9/11 Commission. Felzenberg describes how, early in his political career, Kean worked to transform New Jersey's legislature in the aftermath of court rulings that mandated redistricting in accordance with the "one man, one vote" principle. He discusses Kean's efforts to relieve the urban crisis that followed in the wake of the 1967 Newark riots. He relates how Kean was able to use the New Jersey governorship-purportedly the strongest in the country-to transform a so-called "rust belt" state into a leader in education, environmental responsibility, and economic growth.

Kean's successes in these and other areas caused leaders outside New Jersey to follow in his path. Together with his fellow governors, Kean forged a national consensus on domestic policy between Democratic congresses and Republican presidents, in the process winning for himself a leadership role in his own party. Kean's story serves as an uncommon case of how a Republican loyal to the historic roots and principles of his party can not only win election in a "blue state" but effectively govern it.

Starting from the example the governor set on the state level, Felzenberg's account traces Kean's career to positions of trusted authority on the national stage. After several years of advising presidents, Kean was appointed chairman of the 9/11 Commission. In this role, he made the bipartisan, Congressionally mandated commission one of the most successful in American history.

Drawing on interviews with Kean as well as with state and national leaders, including former presidents Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton and former New York City mayor Ed Koch, Felzenberg not only provides a marvelous biography, but also offers a unique look at American politics during the last four decades of the twentieth century.

About the Author:

Alvin S. Felzenberg was Principal Spokesman for the 9-11 Commission and for its non-profit successor organization, the 9-11 Public Discourse Project. More recently, he was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Felzenberg held several senior level posts on Capitol Hill, served in two presidential administrations, and, in the 1980's, was New Jersey's Assistant Secretary of State. His writings have appeared in the Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe, Weekly Standard, Christian Science Monitor and other publications and he has been a guest on major public affairs television and radio broadcasts, including CNN, Fox News, C-SPAN, and National Public Radio. Felzenberg holds a Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University and an M.A. and B.A. from Rutgers University.


Like its subject, this book has had a long history. Long before I began my research, I had thought that Thomas Howard Kean’s journey from a shy and withdrawn child with a rebellious streak to an effective state legislator, a transformational governor, and, certainly, one of the most significant actors on the New Jersey political stage during the second half of the twentieth century would make for an interesting book. Yet I held off. When Tom Kean stepped down as New Jersey’s forty-eighth governor in 1990 at the age of fifty-four, I, like so many who had observed his career, believed that his public career had not drawn to a close, but that he had merely ended a chapter. Subscribing to the prevailing conventional wisdom—readers will discover that the conventional wisdom was more often wrong than right when it concerned Tom Kean—I assumed that it was only a matter of time before he would return to elective politics. Barring that, I presumed he was certain to accept a high government post, before settling in as one of that rapidly disappearing breed of retired statesmen who frequent Washington, and are often referred to as “wise men.” the time to write his biography, I reasoned, would be then.

Ten years later, with Kean still serving as president of Drew University, having passed up three opportunities to run for the U.S. Senate (he would decline two more) and having cast aside entreaties from two presidents that he join their Cabinet, I began to reconsider. One day, I received an e-mail from Marlie Wasserman of Rutgers University Press. Picking up on a prior conversation, she wanted to know whether I had any topics in mind for a book that might interest her readers. “What about a book about Tom Kean?” I asked. I thought that Kean’s efforts to reform education and welfare policy, preserve . . .

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