Alvin Felzenberg is author of the book Governor Tom Kean: From the New Jersey Statehouse to the 9-11 Commission. Former press. Felzenberg knows of whom he speaks, having worked with Kean as deputy and senior director of communications on the 9/11 commission. Felzenberg recently took some questions from NRO editor Kathryn Lopez about Keans and the commission.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You’ve worked with Kean pretty closely. Why should anyone consider this any kind of objective biography?
Alvin Felzenberg: This is obviously a judgment readers will have to make. I state at the outset in what capacities I worked with Kean. I say too that this is not an “authorized” account of his life, but a political biography. At no point did he exercise or seek to exercise editorial control. Readers will find that my take on certain episodes in his career is not the same as his. There are occasions where I criticize certain actions of his and others where I point out opportunities missed or certain strategies that were rejected.
Lopez: What was “transformational” about his tenure in the governor’s office?
Felzenberg: Put in two short sentences, Kean did essentially three things in this regard. He oversaw the transition in the state’s economy from a manufacturing base to one built around information, high technology, and services. He established, perhaps for the first time, as sense of “state” identity for its residents (of the kind that proud New Englanders, Virginians, or Texans might recognize.) And, for a time, he erased the image of the state as a haven for crooked politicians. Sadly, recent history suggests that since he left office, there has been steady slippage on all three fronts.
Lopez: Never when I am on the Jersey turnpike do I think “New Jersey and Me — Perfect Together.” What was that all about?
Felzenberg: You would have understood this better had you taken time to explore more of the state than its turnpike. The slogan was intended to get people who considered New Jersey nothing more than a place to drive through. It was also intended to entice businesses thinking of expanding their operations to journey across the Hudson River. If you witnessed what has been taking place in Jersey City, Hoboken, and other places, you will see signs of the strategy’s success. The slogan was adopted at a time when the northeast was undergoing a severe economic downturn. Under Kean, the state experienced a faster recovery than the rest of the region. This led pundits to comment on the role Kean played in bringing that about. (See what George F. Will or WFB said about all this during Kean’s time in office.) The slogan gradually became synonymous with what else Kean was doing to improve the quality of life for those who lived in New Jersey.. He maintained a favorable business climate, cutting several taxes and assuring that the state income and sales taxes remained competitive with neighboring states. (The current cast of characters running Trenton might profit from his example.) He took on the teachers unions to establish alternate teacher certification, higher standards, and the first state takeover of failing public schools — reinstating a principle that schools were providers of services to parents and students. He also, with Reagan’s help, reformed welfare in a manner that anticipated the measure Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law a decade ago.
Lopez: Could the 9/11 commission been done better? Could Kean have done better — made it less of a spectacle?
Felzenberg: I suppose this is your idea of a truly “objective” question. With the benefit of hindsight, we all could have done better. So could the media. On balance, one of the best things Kean did was to insist on open public hearings. When you make such a decision, you go in knowing that you take on certain risks. Yet the hearings underscored to the public the nature of the plot that came to fruition on 9/11, how unprepared we as a nation were for the devastating attacks we suffered on that day, and for the policy recommendations we made in the final report.
Lopez: Did you watch The Path to 9/11? Fact or fiction?
Felzenberg: I did watch both installments and invite others who did to compare what was aired to what was actually said in the commission’s final report. Whatever can be said about what the networks call “docudramas” or “dramatizations,” the fact remains that more people watch television than read. As you will recall, the commission report made the best-seller lists and was nominated for the National Book Award. Yet its total sales (which exceeded 1,500,000 copies) represented less than ten percent of the estimated audience the program attracted.
Lopez: What do you think of the commission report becoming a comic book?
Felzenberg: I was skeptical at first, but changed my mind after I saw the final product. It is a way of conveying the message of 9/11 and the nature of the enemy we confront to children at a level they can understand. After reviewing the comic version of the report, memory carried me back to the time I encountered the “Classics’ Illustrated” biography of Theodore Roosevelt in the dentist’s office when I was in the fourth grade. The comic marked the beginning of a life-long fascination I have had both with the man and with the American presidency to this day. I remember checking books out of the library about TR and other presidents. Later in life, I began writing about the presidency myself. This semester, I am teaching a course on the American presidency at Princeton. (Rest assured that no comics will be on the syllabus.)
Lopez: There was a time when Kean was on veep short lists. Whatever happened to that?
Felzenberg: Conventional wisdom held that, in spite of Kean’s advocacy of tax cuts, hard line against Soviet adventurism, advocacy of greater accountability in education and public service, he was too far “out of sync” with the party’s base to land a spot on a national ticket. I continue to disagree.
Lopez: Bob Menendez looks to be in a bit of trouble — what’s wrong with New Jersey politics?
Felzenberg: Those who practice political corruption are not all that different from roaches in a restaurant. They scatter the instant a light is turned on them. New Jersey does not have a media that is either interested or capable of covering such practices on a sustained basis. Most residents know appallingly little about state government. I suspect if you polled on this, you would find that more people can identify the Mayor of New York City or the two United States Senators from New York than they can their own state and local officials. In such an atmosphere, roaches tend to run too much of the restaurant.
Lopez: Speaking of…have you read Jim McGreevey’s book yet?
Lopez: How is Tom Kean Jr. is like his father? How is he not?
Felzenberg: Both share a common calling to public service and in ways the framers intended. They believe there is such as thing as the public interest and that it is the task of public officials to seek to advance it rather than to use the public trust for personal gain. Whenever a son or a daughter of a popular public figure seeks public office, the temptation is great to compare them to their parent rather than to their opponent. Voters will have ample opportunities to do the latter in the course of this campaign.
<title>Governor Tom Kean, by Alvin Felzenberg</title>