By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, December 6, 2005
Thomas H. Kean, the former chairman of the 9/11 commission, sounded like the parent confronting his bright but lazy child.
"Look at this report card!" he demanded. "There are too many C's, D's and F's in this report card!"
Kean was standing on a stage in the Ronald Reagan Building in front of a giant poster grading the federal government's response to the 9/11 commission's recommendations. And the results weren't pretty: Five F's, 12 D's, two incompletes and only one A, which translates to a grade-point average of 1.8.
"Our leadership has been distracted in this country," Kean protested, citing the "scandalous" failures to improve emergency communications or get security money to highest-risk areas. "We're frustrated at the lack of urgency in addressing these various problems."
The problem pupils were absent from this dressing-down. Members of Congress were on their extended Thanksgiving vacation. And, at the exact moment Kean and his fellow former commissioners were warning about a distracted government, President Bush was at a White House holiday reception for children.
That Kean was in front of the cameras yesterday was something of a historical accident. Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, and his vice chairman, former Democratic congressman Lee H. Hamilton (Ind.) got their jobs after Henry A. Kissinger and George J. Mitchell bowed out. "These are the two best second choices in American history," former senator Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), a commissioner, observed at the news conference.
The commission, evenly split between the parties and opposed from the start by Bush, was "set up to fail," as Kean liked to put it. Instead, Kean and Hamilton became to independent commissions what Batman and Robin were to crime fighting: They got unanimous support from Democrats and Republicans for a hard-hitting report and a slate of specific recommendations. When the commission expired last year, Kean and Hamilton kept the group together as self-appointed monitors, popping up every few months to keep public attention on the issues.
As their formal relationship came to an end yesterday with the dissolution of the "9/11 Public Discourse Project," the two men relived some of their exploits. "We have had over 500 speaking events in 36 states," Hamilton boasted. "We've met with college students and high school students, 700 model U.N. students and 1,500 Boy Scout leaders."
Along the way, Hamilton and Kean, who hadn't met before they were appointed, became an old married couple. Kean has been heard to call Hamilton "my other half." Gorton dubbed the two men "the twins" in their private deliberations. "They would finish each other's sentences," he marveled yesterday.
In preparation for their final news conference, the two men arranged a joint appearance Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," co-wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times and appeared together yesterday at a breakfast arranged by the Christian Science Monitor.
They were not a natural pair: The patrician Kean had monogrammed cuffs and accepted a plate of eggs, sausage, bacon and potatoes; Hamilton, a Hoosier who favors a '50s-style hairdo and glasses, declined the breakfast and instead chewed noisily on ice.
But their affection was evident, and profuse. "The reason we got a unanimous report in the commission was because Tom was the leader," Hamilton said. Kean rolled his eyes at Hamilton's modesty.
When Kean offered his view that the debate about torturing detainees has given the country a "black eye," Hamilton's rejoinder was: "I think Tom said it very well."
The breakfast done, the Tom and Lee show moved a few blocks away, to the news conference in the Reagan Building. In front of the lights, the chairman and vice chairman produced their choicest adjectives. Hamilton railed against a "dysfunctional" Congress and warned urgently of "the potential for catastrophic destruction." The normally mild Kean lobbed words such as "shocking" and called it "scandalous that we still allocate scarce Homeland Security dollars on the basis of pork-barrel spending."
The other commissioners served as a Greek chorus for Kean and Hamilton's Cassandra.
"If my children were to receive this report card, they would have to repeat a grade," former representative Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) offered.
Former Navy secretary John F. Lehman spoke of the pupil's potential. "It is possible to get all of these things achieved and with at least an A or a B," he said.
Last to speak was Jim Thompson, the gruff former Republican governor of Illinois, who warned of a "disorganized, savage society" and offered a series of rhetorical questions about the federal government's failures. "Are we crazy? . . . What in the world is the excuse for not putting national security money out there where it's needed? . . . Why aren't our tax dollars being spent to protect our lives?"
"If," Thompson lamented, "our elected leaders would show the same kind of leadership that our leaders showed this commission, we could get it done." As Kean and Hamilton finally went their separate ways yesterday, everybody there sensed that it seemed like an awfully big "if."