The Magazine

Garden State Warrior

The politics of noblesse oblige, New Jersey style.

Mar 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 26 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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Governor Tom Kean

From the New Jersey Statehouse to the 9/11 Commission

by Alvin S. Felzenberg

Rutgers, 558 pp., $29.95

Rarely does a politician who never held national office find his biography blurbed by such an eclectic mix of luminaries. Bill Clinton, Joe Lieberman, Jack Kemp, Ed Koch, William F. Buckley Jr., and George Stephanopoulos all seem to agree that former New Jersey governor Tom Kean has been a model public servant. Clinton calls him "a wonderful man and a genuine patriot." Kemp: "Ahead of his time in many ways." Koch: "An extraordinarily gifted and likable human being." Buckley: "An exemplar of Republican independence."

That last point is a theme of Alvin Felzenberg's study, which documents how Kean became the most popular governor in recent New Jersey history and went on to chair the 9/11 Commission, thus burnishing his elder statesman credentials. In Felzenberg's narrative, Kean stood on principle, cut a centrist figure, showed compassion for the downtrodden, reached out to African Americans, and bucked the Republican base when he saw fit--all the while maintaining a chummy friendship with Ronald Reagan. Felzenberg has not quite written a hagiography, but he does paint Kean as almost too good to be true.

The author makes no secret of his bias. He served as New Jersey's assistant secretary of state during the Kean years (1982-90) and later became chief spokesman for the 9/11 Commission. Plus, he "worked on most of Tom Kean's campaigns." As Felzenberg admits, he does not approach his material from a standpoint of "complete disinterest." He played a firsthand role in many of the episodes recounted in this book and, thus, adds the disclaimer.

The book itself makes for a rich--though some times dense and slow-paced--piece of history. Felzenberg brims with charming anecdotes, such as where Kean picked up his famous accent and how he personally urged President Reagan to sign a formal apology for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Kean was born into New Jersey's political aristocracy: Among the many legislators in his family tree were his father Robert W. Kean, a congressman, and his grandfather Hamilton Fish Kean, a U.S. senator. Kean went from St. Mark's in Massachusetts--where, says Felzenberg, he acquired his New England Brahmin inflection--to Princeton; after graduation, he served in the 50th Armored Division of the New Jersey National Guard.

But he was inevitably drawn into politics, and worked his first campaign in 1958, the year Robert Kean ran for the Senate seat vacated by H. Alexander Smith. Despite his wealth and 20-year tenure in the House, the elder Kean lost to the Democrat Harrison A. Williams--who went on to win reelection three times before being exposed in the Abscam scandal, and going to prison. Young Tom Kean considered his father's defeat "one of the world's great injustices."

He went on to earn a master's degree in social studies from Columbia's Teacher's College before putting his academic career on hiatus to join the eleventh-hour 1964 presidential campaign of Pennsylvania governor William Scranton, designed to stop Barry Goldwater. (Scranton had earlier balked at running for president but, says Felzenberg, changed his mind after Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act.) Kean won election to the New Jersey assembly in 1967 in a season of racial strife, marked principally by the bloody Newark riots. It was in the assembly that he pioneered his centrist, consensus-driven approach, which would one day boost his appeal as governor. On the heels of the Newark meltdown he took the lead in promoting a hefty urban aid program, and in 1972 he ascended to speaker at age 36, the youngest in New Jersey history.

But the unusual circumstances of his ascension--it hinged on a deal Kean made with a few renegade Democrats--left many Democrats fuming. To succeed as speaker, writes Felzenberg, Kean once again applied his third-way style, "but with a different twist. This time . . . he would cut a path not between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans but between competing factions of Democrats."