Word travels fast in Washington. Tom Kean was sitting at home in New Jersey in late 2002 — the news had just gotten out that he’d been asked to chair the 9/11 Commission — when he received two phone calls from friends in Congress. “If you do this job right,” warned the first caller, “nobody’s going to like you. Because you will tell the truth, and nobody in this town likes to hear that.” Not five minutes later came the second call: “What the hell has the president got against you?”
Kean, a Republican, recalls this tale with a disarming chuckle, a characteristic trait that has helped make the affable former New Jersey governor one of the few who’s respected on both sides of the aisle. But the job he took on was no laughing matter. It meant that he would lead an almost impossibly difficult search for the truth of what happened on that terrible September day.
When he agreed to accept the job, Kean didn’t think about the friends he’d lose in Washington. He thought about the friends who had perished — just like so many of the citizens and neighbors he once governed — in the World Trade Center. “The impact on where I live, in northern New Jersey, it’s been devastating,” he says. “I just couldn’t say no.”
Finding the strength to answer the call to serve was just the start. Kean brought unprecedented transparency to the commission’s proceedings, which he knew would draw severe scrutiny. He worried terribly that the panel would succumb to partisan bickering, and forcefully defended a Democratic commissioner who had come under fire from members of the Republican party. Kean led with “discernable values,” said that same commissioner, Jamie Gorelick. And the commission, which was founded with a meager $3 million budget (Kean later got $12 million more), faced a White House that stonewalled him nearly every step of the way. “Most Republicans would buckle under the pressure from the Republican White House,” says Loch Johnson, an intelligence expert who served on the Church Commission in the mid-1970s. “But Kean put partisanship aside.”
Kean knew he was up against terrible odds. “If you wanted something not to work, you would get the most partisan people in town to pick five Republicans and five Democrats,” he says, referring to the way party leaders appointed commission members. Although partisanship flared up, Kean dares anyone to find a more bipartisan committee in Congress. “If we were viewed as partisan, our report would not get the credibility it deserved.”
Ultimately, it would be up to the public to decide whether the commission was truly united. Which meant that whenever possible, the commission had to operate in public. Partly out of strong pressure from the 9/11 victims’ families, Kean and his vice chairman, Democrat Lee Hamilton, decided to hold open hearings and release 17 accessible, unambiguous reports along the way. It was a risky step that could have backfired if something was later proven wrong. “We were willing to take those risks because we wanted to get the information out,” says Kean. “Had we done what most commissions have done… a lot of the information that has become public would have been lost. The press just could not have absorbed it.”
“The bottom line to me was to see everything, and talk to everybody, and on that we couldn’t compromise.”
Oh yes, the press. Kean and his commissioners spent a great deal of time talking to them, despite criticism from the likes of former President Gerald Ford and (ironically) The New York Times. “I thought that allowing the public to hear the commissioners in the media, particularly 10 people saying in many cases the same thing, was another way to show the commission’s unity,” Kean says.
It was these intertwining acts of courage — to be both bipartisan and public, collaborative and transparent — that kept the commission’s fact-finding on track, even while Kean was criticized from all sides. The Bush administration called him unreasonable and stubborn; he has been accused in the media of making far too many compromises. Indeed, while some 9/11 victims’ family members applaud Kean’s leadership, others argue that he has not been nearly aggressive enough. Beverly Eckert, one of the 12 members of the Family Steering Committee, condemns Kean for allowing Bush and Cheney to be interviewed together and for not pushing for more time and money to continue the commission’s investigation.
Kean, however, believes he has held steadfastly to the commission’s goals. “My guiding principle was, ‘What is the bottom line?’ If you can achieve the bottom line, you can make compromises along the way. And the bottom line to me was to see everything, and talk to everybody, and on that we couldn’t compromise.”
At the time of this writing, the commission had yet to release its report. But Kean believes his strategies have already proven successful. “The methodology we used, which was not to issue subpoenas but to use public pressure, got the results we needed.” Collaboration and transparency gave the 9/11 Commission its credibility, which in turn got the panel closer to the truth. And of the truth, Kean says, “We’ve got no other obligation.”
Interested in further exploring some of the ideas and issues in this article? Consider starting a Fast Company reading group. Here are some possible conversation catalysts:
Tom Kean broke partisan convention when he chaired the 9/11 commission. Who else is showing courage in government? Can Michael Moore be called courageous for asking the questions the rest of the media won’t? What about Zel Miller for breaking party lines?