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Commission Accomplished


Tom Kean talks about teaching, bipartisanship and security in a terrorist world.

Tom Kean talks about teaching, bipartisanship and security in a terrorist world.

A Public Service: Kean and Lee Hamilton before a senate committee.

A Public Service: Kean and Lee Hamilton before a senate committee.

Tom Kean (M.A., 1963) brought a teacher’s methodology to his leadership of the 9/11 Commission.

Tom Kean (M.A., 1963) brought a teacher’s methodology to his leadership of the 9/11 Commission.

Late last spring, as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States completed its work, Chairman Thomas Kean called the government printing office and asked how the public would be able to access the final report.  "I was interested in dissemination, because I'd looked at all these government reports, some of them quite good, and you couldn't think of a single one where the recommendations were ever implemented," says Kean, 70, a tall man with a patrician bearing and a famously amiable disposition.  Kean was told that the government office would print the report and make it available for between $30 and $50 per copy. When he asked if that wasn't a bit steep, he was told the public could download the report off the Internet. And when he pointed out that people might be unlikely to do that with a report of over 400 pages, he was given the telephone equivalent of a polite shrug.

Long story short: Kean and Philip Zelikow, chief of the commission's research staff, chose commercial publisher, W.W. Norton, which agreed to sell the book for $10 per copy. "We gave it to the government printing office, too, because otherwise we would have been breaking the law. And when they saw the report was selling like hotcakes, they lowered their price to $9.50 per copy," Kean chortles. "They've since lowered the price on their other reports, too."

Kean-a Teachers College alumnus and former trustee has always taken his case to the people. As a two-term governor of New Jersey (1982-90), he increased school spending while instituting re-port cards for teachers; expanded the state workforce; and went on TV to promote the slogan, "New Jersey and you: perfect together." As a result, he was reelected by the largest margin in the state's history, after first winning office by its narrowest. As president of Drew University for the past 16 years, where he has more than tripled the endowment to over $200 million, he lunches regularly with students, maintains an open door policy, and keeps a cutout of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in his office as an expression of cultural solidarity with the younger generation.

But Kean is no demagogue; in fact, he is an exemplar of that dying breed, the political moderate-a Republican with a sense of noblesse oblige who styles himself after predecessors like Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits. He genuinely believes in a government that governs least. He opposed the war in Iraq but believes the U.S. must stay the course. He enthusiastically supports No Child Left Behind, President Bush's education program of testing and accountability, but believes the war has distracted Bush from giving it the requisite funding. And he laments the partisanship that divides Washington.

Kean traces this centrism to his academic roots. As both a history student at Princeton and a teacher in training at Teachers College in the 1960s, he came to believe in a kind of Socratic method of inquiry that stresses conclusions drawn from facts rather than personal ideology. Using this approach, plus his own considerable personal charm, Kean - originally the third choice to head the 9/11 investigation after Henry Kissinger and George Mitchell-steered the commission's five Democrats and four other Republicans through political shoals that included a not always compliant White House, the publication of a highly damning book by former national security advisor Richard Clarke, and the emotions of the 9/11 victims' families. The result is a truly bipartisan report that is now in classrooms (a source of particular delight to Kean), on the New York Times best seller list and up for a possible National Book Award. More importantly, it contains a set of far-reaching recommendations for change that appear likely to be signed into law.

Political moderate. Bipartisan commission. Best-selling government report. They sound like oxymorons in this day and age. But Tom Kean is a figure who seems to defy political convention. And while he hasn't yet planned his next move after he steps down as Drew's president this spring, there are many on both sides of the aisle who hope he'll continue to do so for a long time.

The Lessons of  9/11

Tom Kean talks about teaching, bipartisanship and security in a terrorist world

Today: You earned a master's degree at Teachers College and then taught history at a private high school. What made you want to teach?
Kean: I always wanted to be a teacher. In the third or fourth grade, that was what I'd planned to do with my life. I'm also dyslexic and back then I stuttered badly. And I had some teachers who really went way beyond what they were paid to do to make sure I was all right, and to give me some self-confidence. Because in those days, people hadn't identified dyslexia yet, they just thought you were dumb, and some of the teachers that weren't so great used that expression. And, you know, if I hadn't been given that confidence, I think I probably wouldn't have overcome the stutter, and certainly never would have gone into the kinds of things I've gone into. So teaching and teachers have always been very, very special to me. And I suppose I just thought that was the best thing one could do with one's life.

Today: What do you remember about Teachers College?
Kean: After college, I went to teach at a non-public school, because I wanted to make sure I liked teaching, and there were no requirements there. I decided I loved it, so to get my certification, I came to Teachers College, which I thought, and still do, was the best.

And I got involved with all sorts of wonderful people. There was a wonderful old curmudgeon called Hunt who headed the teaching of history area, and he made us go through a work by Allan Nevins, who was a famous Columbia historian, and check all the footnotes. Because he wanted to show us that the footnotes were done by undergraduates and were often wrong. I spent hours in Lowe Library checking those footnotes, and it was a real task, but it taught me something I still remember today. And I took courses with Hofstadter, Mattingly, Neustadt, and a lot of the other great historians who were at Columbia then.

Today: Have you drawn on teaching skills or teaching philosophy in what you've done since?
Kean: Oh, hey, if you want to get into politics or into any profession like that, teaching is wonderful.

Today: Why?
Kean: Because you've got to be interesting. I'm giving a speech later today, and I can be interesting for half an hour to people who've never seen me before. That's not hard. But to be interesting for sophomores and juniors who see you day after day is a real skill. And if you understand how to do that, you can handle the press corps in Washington, you can give a speech before the State Legislature, because that classroom is about as tough as it gets. But I loved it, and I've never stopped teaching. As governor, every month I used to go to a different classroom around the state and teach a course. And since I've been at Drew, I've never gone one year without teaching, because that's the essence of the place.

Today:You're known in politics for bipartisanship, for building consensus. Does that come out of teaching, too?
Kean: I suppose, in a sense. You learn to work with colleagues in the school, or in the university. And you learn that you can do better if you get along rather than if you confront. There are teachers that confront their colleagues and they're not generally very successful. The teachers who understand that it's a collegial operation and that you're working together for one goal are more successful. I think I was that kind of teacher. I got along very well with the faculties I was part of.

Today: I was thinking, too, that teaching is about inquiry-that ideally, it's apolitical, because the goal is accuracy. And that in your 9/11 work, your job was to present an accurate picture of what happened. Did you look at it that way-particularly as someone who's taught history-and did that help you to build consensus in the commission?
Kean: Yes. My history training figured there very solidly because there were a number of people, for instance, who wanted to be head of staff. There was an ex-general, there was an ex-ambassador-very qualified people. My concept was, we're talking about history-recent history, but history. And if you're going to tell that story accurately, you've got to use the historical method. Research, footnotes, all of that. And so I wasn't satisfied till I found a historian, Phil Zelikow [of the University of Virginia], to head the staff. And he and I had a lot of conversations before we started on the approach we were going to use, and it was a historical approach. Our focus was, one, it's got to be written like a history. Second it's got to be readable. It's got to be something that isn't just a government report that goes on the shelf. Ordinary people have got to be able to read it and understand the event. And third, the recommendations that we come up with have got to come out of the story. They can't be independent. You've got to see what went wrong and the recommendations for change have got to come out of those events.

Today: And that helped defuse partisanship in the Commission?
Kean: Yes. We were five Republicans and five Democrats in a Presidential election year, appointed by the most partisan people in Washington, the minority and majority leaders of the House and Senate. And what I did is, every time a disagreement was blooming, I would say, "Let's go back to the facts. Because we can agree on those." And that worked. Because facts are very stubborn things. And that, again, is a historian's method.

Today: Is there an incident that exemplifies how consensus was reached in some of the Commission sessions?
Kean: The first six months were very difficult, because the Commission had some good individual people, but they came out of very different backgrounds and they were working together for the first time. And they'd been appointed by partisan people who would call them and say, "Don't you think Bill Clinton was responsible for 9/11, get that in there," or, "Don't you think George Bush really fouled up in his first nine months?" So it was very difficult. But as we got to know each other and we went out to dinner at each other's houses and started to get to know each other's families-because we made sure there was that kind of interchange-it changed. People started to know each other not with a big R or D on their chest, but as people who really cared about this and wanted to see it done well. And then the disagreements became not only easier, but different. The last two months, it was as good a discussion as any academic seminar I've ever sat in, because these were very able people coming at the issues from an intellectual point of view. The arguments then became totally non-personal, with consensus eventually reached around ideas. And I wouldn't have told you a year before we made our report that that was going to happen.

Today: Was there a turning point in that whole process?
Kean: I don't think there was one turning point. But we had a bad moment. The bad moment was when [former counter-terrorism ad- visor] Richard Clarke testified and decided to move his publication date to the date he testified, and also to use his book to attack the president. So Democrats felt, well, they'll support that, and some of the Republicans thought, well, we're gonna support the President, and that carried a little over to [National Security Advisor] Condi Rice's public testimony, too.

Today: Did Clarke's book have any salutary effect on your work?
Kean: I think so. I brought it up in the Commission afterward and said, you know, we've been working very well together, we're transparent and we've been working with the families [of those killed in the 9/11 attacks] and these public hearings have been very helpful in getting the American people on our side, but one criticism we're starting to have is: These guys are divided on partisan grounds.
And I said to the Commission-and [former Democratic Congressman] Lee Hamilton did, too; he was a wonderful Vice  Chairman-look, we probably can fail in only two ways. One is if we leak information, because we were seeing the most secret documents in the possession of the United States government, and if any of those had leaked out, government agencies would have said, "Well, we have a reason to deny you future documents." And the second thing is if we become just another Washington partisan thing and aren't taken that seriously. And I said, if we can just do an honest job based on facts, we will be successful.

Today: Did Clarke's book also create momentum towards actually putting the president and the vice president in a room and being able to talk to them? Or would that have happened anyway?
Kean: It would have happened anyway. But the President said it was going to be only Lee Hamilton and I, because that's the usual procedure. When a committee wants to see someone high up in the Administration, you send the Chairman and the Vice Chairman-a Republican and a Democrat. But we argued that as far as we were concerned, all 10 Commissioners were equal and all of them were going to have an equal hand in writing the report, and therefore, all of them needed to interview both the President and the Vice President.

And it had never been done before. You cannot think about any Commission that's ever asked for all 10 of them to come in to see the President. Not even Congressional committees. So it wasn't frivolous on the White House's part. They didn't want to set a precedent that every Congressional committee's going to be able to waltz in. So we were very grateful when the White House finally decided that, yes, all ten of us could come in. And it was a moment there-again as somebody who loves history-sitting in the Oval Office with nine other people, none of them elected, and the President finally said, "Stay as long as you want to until every question has been answered." And I thought, is there any other country in the world where this would happen? Even in other democracies, this doesn't happen, where citizens are able to sit and question their President. And really this whole experience, if it did nothing else for me, it gave me the sense that, in spite of all the partisanship, all the nastiness and all the problems, democracy still works. And that's good to know. I mean, again and again, powerful people in Washington tried to deny us what we needed. And every single time, basically through pressures in a democracy, we won. We were able to get what we needed to do our job.

Today: Looking back on it now, what are you're proudest of in your work on 9/11-and what you would do differently?
Kean: One thing was that we had subpoena power, and every time we needed a document and the White House or a government department said you can't have that document-or if there was a person we needed to interview, public or private-there were a number of the commissioners who thought we should issue a subpoena. Now, that sounds good. But a lot of these documents were being protected under the doctrine of Presidential privilege. I checked with some attorneys and found out that since Franklin Roosevelt no President has ever lost a case of Presidential privilege on that doctrine. So the chances were we'd lose or get tied up in court in a process where the Commission had only a short life.

Also, and this was Lee Hamilton's take on it, he said when you subpoena people in Congress, their testimony is very different. They come in with their lawyers. They're very careful about what they say and their lawyers coach them on what to say. And the testimony is much less informative.

So instead of using subpoenas, we simply used the power of public pressure. We would say we needed something to do our job. And some of the reasons used to withhold things from us were credible-such as when the White House said that these Presidential daily briefings had never been seen by anybody, ever, outside of the President and a small number of advisors, and that if anybody ever got hold of them, the President and his advisors wouldn't be able to work in the same manner. Because if you think a document's going to be public you write it in a different way. So their argument was good. It's just that we said that without knowing what the President got from the intelligence community, we can't write our report. And we prevailed on that one, but in part because of the pressure from the families, and because the public and the editorial boards weighed in with us.

Today: Was there also a conscious decision that there's not a lot of value in pointing fingers at any one person? Almost an understanding as you brought people in that this is to get at the truth, but not to ruin careers?
Kean: I got criticized about this from the families, because from my initial press conference I said our job is not going to be to point fingers. Because I have to believe that everybody who served in an important position in the Clinton and Bush Administrations has some culpability. But to say that some have more than others, or that 9/11 wouldn't have happened if somebody had done something differently, that's all speculation.

And I didn't see what the public was going to get out of that. So we pointed out the facts. And there are facts in there which are quite damning. And the public can draw its own conclusions-but we didn't, and quite purposely so.

Today: There are some unanswered questions in the report, as one would expect. For example, the discussion of the fact that in the days after 9/11, 10 planes of Saudi folks left the U.S., including members of the Bin Laden family.
Kean: But we addressed that. We went after that very hard because of the Michael Moore movie and because it was one of the so-called conspiracy theories that was out there. The Saudi ambassador did ask, because he was worried about the safety of some of these people, whether they could fly out of the country. And the conspiracy theory says they were allowed to fly out before the airspace was opened without being ever checked by government officials and the FBI. Just the opposite is true. They were made to stay until after the airspace was open. Before they were allowed to leave, the FBI checked every single person on that plane, and nobody left without the FBI giving its okay.

And the final authority on that was Richard Clarke. He says, "I'm the one who gave the final sign-off that everybody had been checked over and that plane could leave." And that's in the report. But you know, the Bin Laden family's huge, and most of them don't have a great deal of fondness for Osama. So these were not people who were on any lists, or who the FBI wanted particularly. But they questioned them anyway.

Today: So you made a point of responding to what you knew were public concerns? Even rumors?
Kean: Oh, yes. The Warren Commission [charged with investigating the assassination of John Kennedy] failed because they didn't do that. They left a lot of these conspiracy theories just floating out there. We thought that, if we could find out the facts, our job was to take every one of these rumors and trace them down, so that you didn't have these things hanging around for 20 years. 

Today: You mentioned the families earlier-that they criticized you at points during the commission's work. What's been their feedback to you since the recommendations have come out?
Kean:Well, they're working with us very closely. We had disagreements on the methodology along the way. They didn't understand me when I tried to explain why subpoenas would be counter-productive. And I understood their passion-you know: these sonofaguns aren't giving us something, subpoena em! I just didn't think it was the right strategy, and I think we got what we wanted without it. So we had some differences, but we never differed on the ends. We were all going in the same direction, and now we're here. And we're absolutely together, and as we speak, the families are down lobbying for our bill. And they, by the way, are wonderful people. I mean, to take that kind of tragedy-well, you can't imagine. One of them told me the other day that people ask her, Why are you still so passionate on this subject, why haven't you moved on? And she said, well, you know, first of all, unlike other kinds of tragedies, it's very hard for a few days to go by before we're reminded of it-something on television, something somebody says, something in the newspaper. And second, she said, five times now in the middle of the morning there's been a guy in a dark suit who's knocked at my door and said, I've got another piece of your son.

Today: Wow.
Kean: Yeah.

Today: In a sense, that gets to my next question. You've been at the center of sorting out the worst disaster in American history. What has it done to you personally? How has it changed your view of the world?
Kean: Well, it's gotten me into thinking about every problem. One of the greatest failures here was the failure of imagination. The idea of planes flying into buildings was something none of us imagined. Science fiction writers talked about it. We just didn't conceive of it. So we've got to think in different ways. We've got to get ahead of these people.

And then the world has changed. It's never going to be the same again. You know, whether people like or dislike Bush, it's been a transforming Presidency. We have a different world, and America's role in it is perceived differently. We have probably a worse relationship with some of our best allies than at any time in the last 50 years. We may have a better relationship with China and Russia than at any time in the last 50 years. Our best ally in Europe is Poland. It's a whole new world we're looking at.

Today: How would you sum up what you've learned about our national security?
Kean: Enough to be deeply disturbed. You know, I've been involved in government for a long time, but I didn't know anything about the security of our country or how the various security agencies worked with one another and what the product of their work was. And it's profoundly disappointing. Figure we spend-and I'm now telling you something that's not legal, but I'm telling you I believe that I've read it-figure we spend about $40 billion on intelligence. Well, for $40 billion, two presidents were very badly served. I have read the most sensitive documents received by both President Clinton and President Bush on this subject and neither of them got good information. We now know there was very bad information out of Iraq from the intelligence agencies. So that has to be reformed. Cultures don't talk to each other. Rivalries are very strong. And that's our best defense. Our best defense is finding out about these things before they happen.

We've also done a terrible job of human intelligence. The CIA is one of the most un-diverse agencies. We don't take advantage of this wonderful diverse country we have in recruiting. We haven't trained people in languages. I mean somebody like me, who went to Princeton and Teachers College, I can't go and infiltrate Al Qaeda.

Today: Especially not now!
Kean: No, but we have people in our society who can, and we haven't recruited them at this point.

Today: Is another attack inevitable?
Kean: I think so.

Today: Of that magnitude?
Kean: I don't know what magnitude. Whatever magnitude they're able to pull off. The worrisome thing about these people is they tell you what they want to do. They want to kill as many of us as they possibly can. And if they can do so with weapons of mass destruction, they'll do it. They've said that. Bin Laden said he was out to kill Jews and Crusaders. Which means us. That was his statement. So they're going to keep on trying. And all these measures we're talking about now will make their success less possible, but not impossible. They're all designed to make us safer. But we'll never be totally safe.

Today: And does that give you more hope for what education and multiculturalism can accomplish, or less?
Kean: More, because that's always the answer. The breeding ground for Al Qaeda or any other terrorists are the uneducated, the people who can't find jobs, who have no money, and who are very angry at the world. The Koran is not a religion of violence, and the kinds of things that are happening in Iraq, people being beheaded, are deeply offensive to most Muslims. But the hopelessness which exists in that part of the world feeds Al Qaeda's cause. And our job is to show there is hope. That's what we should be about.

Editor's note: As we finalized this issue in December, both houses of Congress had ratified bills that contained most of the 9/11 Commission's major recommendations. However, to overcome Objections from key opponents, language was inserted to preserve the Pentagon's autonomy in its use of intelligence and transmission to soldiers on the battlefield.

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