The administration of former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean had the most impressive talent pool of any New Jersey gubernatorial administration during the past century. Former members of the Kean administration achieved remarkable success in a wide variety of fields of endeavor. Some were elected to higher political office. In the business arena, former Kean officials joined the highest ranks of New Jersey captains of industry. Others achieved major success in the fields of lobbying and law.
Yet few Kean administration members, if any, have made the lasting impact on society of former Kean Assistant Secretary of State Alvin S. Felzenberg. His success has been in the field of academia, specifically in writing books that became the definitive works on subjects of major historical import. His biography, Governor Tom Kean: From the New Jersey Statehouse to the 9-11 Commission will stand for generations as the most authoritative work on New Jersey’s foremost governor of the 20th century. His book, The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Ratings Game is considered by leading American history and political science academics to be the gold standard of comparative presidential rating systems and assessments.
Al Felzenberg’s latest biography, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley, Jr., published this past month, is likely to be his most significant work, both in terms of literary critical acclaim and political impact. The book is more than a comprehensive biography of Bill Buckley; it is also a masterly analysis of the evolution and development of political conservatism since the end of the Second World War.
It is not surprising that the book has received lavish praise from such esteemed sources as George Shultz, George Will, Cokie Roberts, and Chris Matthews. This book has all the hallmarks of the scholarship that distinguishes Al Felzenberg works: Comprehensive coverage of events and issues, trenchant analysis, and above all, the avoidance of hagiography.
It is remarkable how diligent Felzenberg always is in pursuit of this objective of producing a credible historical biography rather than a slavish, sycophantic hagiography. This was even true of his Kean biography. Tom Kean and Al Felzenberg have been intimate friends for nearly five decades. Al also served as principle spokesman of the 9-11 Commission, chaired by Kean. Yet while his biography of Kean was appropriately laudatory, Felzenberg did not hesitate to criticize Kean administration actions when he deemed it appropriate. As he said at the time of publication of the Kean biography, “I’m a biographer, not a press secretary.”
Similarly, in spite of his admiration for Buckley, Felzenberg critically describes in detail Buckley’s original opposition to federal efforts to desegregate Southern schools, end discrimination in public accommodations, and guarantee voting rights.
Once Buckley changed his positions on these issues in the late 1960s, he became the intellectual lodestar for a generation of young conservatives, myself included. Buckley’s periodical, the National Review, became our secular political bible. The apogee of Buckley’s presidential influence transpired during the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan, a continuation of their previous years of friendship, communication, and advice.
With his new Buckley tome, Felzenberg has achieved a political triumph as well. He has solidified his status as perhaps the leading Republican intellectual in America. His previous literary accomplishments and his academic experiences as a professor at various leading national universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, have laid the groundwork for his attaining this status. This Felzenberg breakthrough comes at a time when the Republican Party is badly in need of such intellectual mentorship.
The Trump administration in Washington and the Christie administration in Trenton are vast intellectual wastelands. This stands in dramatic contrast to the administrations in the 1980s of Tom Kean in New Jersey and Ronald Reagan in Washington, both of which were magnets for intellectuals.
Tom Kean himself was an authentic intellectual who went on to become president of Drew University. Chris Christie, in an effort to establish a populist style for his then forthcoming 2016 presidential campaign, spoke derisively of “college professors” in a 2013 speech that established himself as an avatar of anti-intellectual philistinism. The message of the intellectual Kean was “the politics of inclusion.” The message of the philistine Christie was the politics of vindictiveness, culminating in Bridgegate.
Ronald Reagan was not an intellectual, but he possessed enormous intellectual curiosity. He studied in depth American history and the economic works and treatises of intellectuals like Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. This contrasts starkly with Trump, who claims he has no time to read, but plenty of time to play golf.
Reagan’s message of “a shining city on a hill” was a product of his intellectual curiosity, specifically his study of early American history and colonial Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop. Trump’s contrasting message of “American carnage” is directly attributable to his lack of intellectualism and reliance on his nihilist-in-chief, Steve Bannon.
In fact, the four factions struggling for dominance in the Trump White House are all distinguished by a lack of any intellectual agenda. The Bannonist faction is distinguished by anti-intellectual nihilism and xenophobia. The “family members” faction is motivated by a superficial desire to make Trumpism acceptable to the tony societal sets of Manhattan and Washington. The Wall Street faction pursues a crony-capitalist agenda. The mainstream Republican faction is focused on establishing commonality between Trump administration proposals and the shopworn ideas of GOP Capitol Hill.
In such an atmosphere of chaos, Trump is badly in need of outside political intellectual guidance, and Al Felzenberg would felicitously meet this exigency. It is too late for Chis Christie, who leaves office in nine months, to benefit from the creation of a dialogue between himself and Al Felzenberg. It is not too late for Donald Trump. The sooner a Trump-Felzenberg dialogue is established, the better both America and Trump will be.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.