March 23, 2005: A moment with...
Thomas Kean ’57
A former governor of New Jersey and current president of Drew University, Thomas Kean ’57 took on a new challenge in 2002 when President Bush named him chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States — more commonly known as the 9/11 Commission. Kean, who majored in history at Princeton, was honored with this year’s Woodrow Wilson Award on Alumni Day. He spoke with PAW’s Brett Tomlinson.
Before you began your work as chairman of the 9/11 Commission, you had personal connections to families affected by the tragedy. Was it difficult to separate your emotions from the work at hand?
It was difficult at the beginning, and particularly so in interacting with the families. Each of the families has its own horrific story, and all of the family groups wanted to meet with me when I was appointed. So I was reminded again and again, which is what they wanted. They wanted me to understand fully the pain, the grief, and the tragedy, and why that motivated them to seek change. I got the message.
The commission challenged historical precedent by interviewing President Bush. Why did you think that was critical?
It was absolutely vital because there were a lot of rumors out there, which would have persisted, about what the president knew and when he knew it. If we hadn’t been able to clear those up and answer those questions, our report might have been like the Warren Commission report, just spawning unanswered questions. The only person who could answer [the commission’s questions] was the president, so we insisted on a meeting. Further than that, we insisted the whole commission meet [with the president]. We thought it was important that all 10 of us were there. We were surprised, first, that we were successful, and second, that the president stayed over three hours and answered any question we asked, and said, “I’ll stay longer if you have more questions.”
What were the political dynamics of the 9/11 Commission?
We were five Republicans and five Democrats. You looked across the table and saw the “D” and the “R” on people’s chests and were very suspicious because it was a presidential election year. I’d say the last two months of the commission meetings, as we got to debating these recommendations, were akin to the best seminar I ever attended at Princeton. People who had deep beliefs and deep understanding of some of these issues were really debating the core questions of how we should reorganize the government — what were the problems in Congress, what were the failures that could be corrected, and how could you correct them – and working out some solutions.
What message does that cooperation send to the rest of Washington?
I hope it sends the message that you can get a lot more done together than you can apart. I have great faith in people who choose to go into government. With very few exceptions, they go in for the right motivations. And you don’t always agree with each other, but we learned at Princeton in a lot of precepts that you can debate like crazy and come out with respect for one another.
In your Alumni Day lecture, you recalled Abraham Lincoln encouraging people to “think anew and act anew.” Are our strategies in the Arab world shaped too much by our strategies in the Cold War?
I think we’re moving past it, but it’s still a problem. We still always fight the last war. That was a problem with 9/11. When the planes attacked, we vectored our Air Force planes out to sea because we were looking for attacks coming from the ex-Soviet Union. What we’ve got to recognize is this is not only a new enemy — it’s a whole new approach. And the enemy is entrepreneurial. They’re doing things that have never been done before. Unless we’re entrepreneurial in our response, we’re not going to be successful.
The 9/11 report called for “institutionalizing imagination.” How can the intelligence community make that change?
It changes with the people. I thought at one point that perhaps we should have somebody like the novelist Tom Clancy, who thought of this – he thought that people might fly planes into buildings when nobody in Washington did. Perhaps we need a few people who are just thinking and imagining scenarios and saying “what if” and “how would we defend against it?”
How did your experience as president of Drew University help you in your work with the 9/11 Commission?
Universities are all about shared governance. If you’re a college president, you can’t just say “do it” and it gets done. There are faculty, students, and alumni, who all care desperately about the place and want a say. And so you learn how to bring people together, you learn how to work with people, you learn how to move the institution, but move it together so that everyone is part of it.