Thomas Kean leads more than one life. The former governor of New Jersey is now president of Drew University and chairman of the highly controversial National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
As college president, Kean (rhymes with sane) has one last official duty to perform Friday before packing up to come to Washington for his commission's final hearing -- which starts today. He stops by a sandwich-and-soda luncheon for the security officers who guard Drew University.
It's a breezy, tree-spangled campus in this upscale New York City commuter community. With 2,400 students, Drew doesn't have the range of Rutgers or the prestige of Princeton. But Kean says it suits him just fine.
In blue open-collar shirt, gray flannels and black loafers, Kean, 69, speaks through a well-documented gap in his teeth to the gathering of a dozen or so campus cops. He thanks the group and, in a voice that rattles a little like Sean Connery's, stresses the importance of their work. "This is not an easy job, what you're doing on campus," he says. "You're the first response. I'm usually the last."
One reason the terrorists were successful on Sept. 11, 2001, he tells them, was the failure of law enforcement groups to communicate. "The FBI didn't trust local people," he says. "We're going to recommend that everybody talk to each other."
And, he continues, the commission believes that police and fire groups should help people prepare better for disasters. To illustrate, he tells a story. Many people who worked in the World Trade Center towers did not take fire drills seriously, he says. An alarm would go off, people would make a half-hearted effort to evacuate the premises, then they would gather in hallways and wait for the all clear. "Most people," he says, "had never even been in the stairwells."
When the planes hit, many people high in the buildings had no idea what to do. There was panic and chaos. "Honestly," he says, bringing his story to a close, "if there had been training, there would have been lives saved."
A Wide Range of Suggestions
For Tom Kean, the investigation into what went wrong on and before 9/11 and what should be done to thwart further attacks permeates every aspect of American life.
And, now, of his life.
The commission "has certainly impacted him," says Christine Todd Whitman, another former New Jersey governor and longtime Kean friend. "He's been very affected by the families."
She says, "Trying to bring balance to such an emotional issue, it's very hard to do."
Kean, who accepted the chairmanship for all kinds of reasons -- public and private -- was not President Bush's first choice. Bush selected Henry Kissinger in late 2002, but because Kissinger did not want to disclose his client list, he stepped down. Kean answered the call. He said he felt like "a ton of bricks" had fallen on him.
One of the first things Kean did was phone Kissinger and ask whom he had lined up to help him on the committee. Kissinger told Kean he hadn't made much headway. "He said, 'Best of luck,' " Kean says.
Over the course of several conversations, Kean speaks of how amazed he was at the breadth of the congressional mandate. "We have to look into so many areas, everything from congressional oversight to terrorist financing to aircraft safety to border control," he says. "It's breathtaking. Sweeping." And after 18 months, thousands of hours of testimony from more than 1,000 witnesses -- in public and in private -- and the review of more than 2 million pages of materials, his 10-member commission is almost ready to make recommendations. The commission hopes that its report will be available to the president, Congress and the American public by July 26. It will be about 500 pages, he says.
The suggestions will be wide-ranging, Kean says, from police training to foreign policy to how to improve intelligence gathering. Essentially, the commission will be proposing changes in the ways we live from now on in a danger-filled, interdependent world.
For instance, Kean says, "you can't just talk about 'terrorists.' " The term, he says, is way too broad. One commissioner suggested using the phrase "Islamic extremists" to describe the enemy.
To talk of a War on Terrorism, Kean says, "makes no sense."
He is concerned that "more and more we are looking for oil in the same areas where we're looking for terrorists -- Asia and Africa, areas that are dangerous."
And though our foreign policy is aimed at finding and fighting terrorists, Kean says, it may be creating even more terrorists at a more rapid rate.
A More Public Kind of Commission
"You could have said that this commission was structured to fail," says Kean. It was created in the most partisan period in modern politics, he says.
At the onset, Kean told his colleagues -- five Democrats and four other Republicans -- that there were two ways the commission could fall flat: If it leaked classified material or if it was perceived as a partisan endeavor. Kean is still praying that the final votes on the report do not follow party lines.
"I don't know that I predict a unanimous report," says vice chairman Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat. "We're doing our very best to get it."
Kean says that the bottom line is a report "that's not Democratic or Republican. We're about telling a story."
In the early stages, the commission told its story quietly.
"I had thought we would labor away in obscurity for 18 months," says Jamie S. Gorelick, one of the commissioners, "and then beg for attention when the report came out."
Kean had other ideas. "I wanted it to be more public than other commissions of the past," he says, referring to the Pearl Harbor Commission and the Warren Commission, among others.
He got what he wished for and more.
Reports of the commission's hearings moved onto network news shows when White House adviser Richard Clarke testified. Around the time he appeared, the Free Press released his book, "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror," which pointed to failings in the Bush administration's handling of the 9/11 attacks.
"I had no idea that Clarke would publish his book and that he would launch on the day he testified," Kean says.
The ensuing tendentiousness among commissioners "complicated the hearings," Hamilton says, "and created an environment that made it more difficult."
Commissioners were suddenly everywhere, writing op-ed pieces and appearing on talk shows. Former president Gerald R. Ford, who was a member of the Warren Commission, told the New York Times: "I think they could do a better job if they were less public-relations related," he said. "I think it will have an adverse impact on their report."
When other high-profile witnesses followed, Kean's commission took center stage. "I had no idea that Condoleezza Rice would be on national television," Kean says. Attorney General John Ashcroft testified. So did President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
The commission asked for highly classified Presidential Daily Briefs. A small group of commissioners, including Kean, was allowed to review them. "They are the Holy Grail of the nation's secrets," Kean says. "No congressional committee has ever seen them. It took a lot of negotiating and a lot of hard work. We had to convince the White House that this was a commission unlike any other."
And that it could not fulfill its mandate unless it saw the documents to know who knew what when.
The documents showed that "the White House was not trying to hide something," Kean says. The PDBs did not reveal that Bush or his predecessor, Bill Clinton, had any prior knowledge of a possible terrorist attack on America. "What the PDBs did show in both administrations," Kean says, "was that there was plenty of talk about al Qaeda, but the dangers were thought to be abroad and not at home."
It's important, Kean says, to remember what the world was like before the terrorist attacks. Though the Clinton administration was aware of Osama bin Laden's activities overseas, Kean says, in the presidential debates summer of 2000 "terrorism was never even mentioned."
A Positive Force for Drew
The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Tom Kean was recovering from oral surgery. He was on the phone with his dentist, who told him that a plane had just flown into one of the twin towers.
When Kean zapped on the TV news and realized what was happening, he hopped in his car and drove 35 minutes from his old farmhouse in Bedminster, N.J., to Drew University. He staged a campus-wide forum for students, faculty and staff. "We did a little talking, a little singing and a little praying," he says.
Drew was founded by antebellum Methodists. There are old hardwoods and new construction surrounding Mead Hall, the 19th-century red-brick administration building. The hall burned down in 1989. In a small, but strange, pre-echo of 9/11, when Kean became president in 1990 one of his first orders of business was to deal with the charred remnants.
And a sucking chest wound in the school's finances. With a $60 million endowment, the university was overspending by a million dollars a year. Kean stanched the bleeding. Today the school's endowment is $220 million.
His connections have helped him raise big bucks for the college. "I don't have to start at the bottom," Kean says.
"He's raised the image of the university," says trustee Barbara Morris Caspersen. "He makes sure all the different constituencies are taken care of."
On this Friday, the day of Ronald Reagan's funeral, the flag in front of Mead Hall droops at half-staff as Kean eases his blue Audi into the parking space reserved for the president. Folks call out "Morning, Governor!" as he climbs the stairs to his second-floor office. It's a big room, to accommodate the multitasking Kean. Vanity photos are propped here and there. Kean and: Henry Kissinger, President Bush and Bill Clinton.
On a conference table, stacks of books stand like skyscrapers. There's some Keansian whimsy, too. Near a wall are food and water bowls for Kean's new dog, Willie, a purebred border terrier. Kean was given custody by the breeder with one stipulation: That Willie could be shown from time to time. The dog has turned out to be a champion. Kean proudly displays one of Willie's awards, a red ribbon honoring "Best of Opposite Sex."
"Wouldn't you like to get that ribbon?" Kean asks.
A life-size cardboard cutout of Sarah Michelle Gellar in a blue Drew U. T-shirt stands by the window. Kean says he wants to stay connected to young people, so he watches some of the shows they watch, such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
"It's extremely well written," he says.
Getting Results to the Public
To release the commission's final report, Kean says, he chose W.W. Norton -- as well as the Government Printing Office -- because he believes the academic publisher can produce the report in book form for the least amount of money. "Let's get it in every bookstore," he says. Norton, he adds, will not take any profits and other companies will be free to print it.
Once the book is on the shelves, people will be able to judge for themselves whether Kean has gone too easy on some witnesses. The commission has come under fire for its slow-pitch softball queries to certain 9/11 players, such as former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former FBI director Louis Freeh.
Some of the commission's most vocal critics have been the families of those killed in the attacks. Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband Ronald died in the World Trade Center, is co-chairman of September 11th Advocates. Kean "always returns phone calls," Breitweiser says. "He's always listening and appreciating what we're saying."
But, she says, "I would have hoped he would have been a little more aggressive in the style of the hearings. . . . In my opinion the commission fell down on the job."
Kean hears often from Breitweiser, who is also from New Jersey, and other relatives of victims. And he meets with them, he says, whenever they want a meeting.
"They e-mail me, they pick up the phone and call me," he says. He poses their questions to witnesses. The victims' families "are very active and very good. They've been very helpful. And they've been patient," Kean says.
Sometimes after a hearing, he adds, "they are mad as hell."
'I've Got One More Good Job in Me'
Kean understands the meaning of family. Born on Easter, 1935, he was the fifth of six children. His ancestry branches back to Peter Stuyvesant, a 17th-century governor of New York. Kean says his mother almost ended his political career on Day One because she wanted to call him "Bunny."
When he was 3, his father, Robert Winthrop Kean, was elected to Congress and the family moved to Washington. Kean went to Potomac School, then St. Albans.
He was not a good student because he was, among other things, dyslexic. His parents sent him away to St. Mark's in Southborough, Mass. "It was rough," he says, "when you're sort of a dork kid."
He also had a severe stammer and, when confronted with a classroom question, preferred to say, "I don't know," than to try to say the answer aloud.
One report card went home with these words on it: "He's a mess."
Eventually he met a Latin teacher who turned his academic life around. Another life-changing moment came one summer when he volunteered as a counselor at Brantwood Camp for underprivileged kids in New Hampshire. "I loved it," says Kean, who believes he got as much out of the camp as the kids. He worked there every summer through college. He graduated from Princeton in 1957.
He joined the Army Reserve and took a job on Wall Street. When he got a call from St. Mark's offering him a job as a history teacher, he took it and taught there for more than two years.
In 1960, Kean voted for John F. Kennedy. "I was absolutely taken with him," Kean says. "I went back to being a Republican when Lyndon Johnson became president."
Kean entered Columbia Teachers College. "I thought I was going to be a teacher for the rest of my life," he says. But he had been seduced by public service.
He eventually slid into New Jersey politics. From 1967 to 1977, Kean served in the state assembly. He ran a real estate business on the side.
In 1981, he was elected governor by the smallest margin in New Jersey history. He was reelected in 1985 by the largest margin. First time around he received 10 percent of the state's African American vote; in reelection, he received 60 percent.
He is married to Deborah Bye, whom he describes as a homebody and "not a fan of politics." They have a daughter, Alexandra, and twin sons, Reed and Tom, who was elected to the state assembly in 2001.
After Kean and his commission deliver their report, Kean says, he'll think about the future. "I've got one more good job in me," he says.
For now, Kean's still keen on academia. He teaches a class every year, in political science. "I should be teaching history," he says. "That is my field."
Instead, he's in Washington, making history.
"Tom Kean is a man of enormous good humor and noblesse oblige," says fellow commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste. "His personal charm has played no small role in the cohesiveness and camaraderie that has developed among the members of the commission."
He enjoys being with other people. But on this Friday, he says no thanks to a sandwich with the campus cops and instead swings by the cafeteria for a Tropical Sting fruit smoothie. He speaks of listening to opera, reading historical fiction and playing golf with his kids. And of ways to treat tennis elbow.
He's got a full afternoon ahead. He will probably talk to the White House. Maybe to Hamilton. Breitweiser or another member of the Family Steering Committee may call. He's making plans to attend the 100th anniversary of Camp Brantwood in July. At 6 he'll be playing tennis with his usual cronies.
One of the men he used to play with -- for more than 20 years -- is not around anymore, Kean says as he walks across the Drew campus. Gray clouds move by overhead; the wind has stiffened.
The man was killed in a plane crash. It was Flight 93 that went down in Pennsylvania. On Sept. 11, 2001. "He was probably one of the heroes," Kean says.