My Five Leading New Jersey Political Intellectuals

Throughout my adult life, I have aspired to achieve the status of an intellectual.  I cannot be an objective judge as to how close I have come to achieving this goal.

Nevertheless, I will always strive to enhance the extent of my intellectual development.  In my years as an undergraduate student at Northwestern University, I extensively studied the works of five historic philosophers, whose ideas became the foundation of my political beliefs.  These “foundation philosophy intellectuals” are 1) John Locke, with his assertion of the individual’s primacy over the state and his right to life, liberty, and the legitimate pursuit of property; 2) Edmund Burke, with his emphasis on the necessity of the preservation of institutions and conventions in order to maintain a well-ordered yet free society; 3) John Stuart Mill, with his unflagging defense of freedom of thought and the necessity of tolerance; 4) Adam Smith, with his advocacy of free markets; and 5) Walter Laqueur, and his analysis of nationalism and its relationship to terrorism and the Holocaust. 

At Northwestern, I was fortunate to be taught by four of the leading political science and history professors of the world, each being the leading expert in his particular field.  These four academic intellectuals were 1) Richard Leopold, professor of history, who was then considered to be the leading expert in the history of American foreign policy; 2) James Sheehan, professor of history, who now teaches at Stanford, reviews virtually all significant new books on contemporary European history for the New York Times, and remains as the world’s leading expert on the history of modern Germany; 3) Carl Friedrich, visiting professor of political science from Harvard, the leading expert, in my view, on political theory and author of the landmark book, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, with Zbigniew Brzezinski; and 4) Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, professor of political science, a Palestinian Arab and the world’s then leading Arab academic expert on the Israeli-Arab conflict.

A word is due here on Professor Abu-Lughod.  Along with his close friend and associate, Edward Said of Columbia, he was the leading spokesperson in the Western World for the Palestinian Arab cause and fought against the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.  By contrast, I am a lifelong committed Zionist Orthodox Jew.   

I have always felt, however, that anybody aspiring to intellectual status should at least be open-minded enough to study opposing points of view.  While my study under Professor Abu-Lughod did not make me a sympathizer with the Palestinian Arab cause or lessen my commitment to the Israeli-American alliance, it at least enabled me to understand his point of view and the issues involved in attempting to negotiate a peace between Israel and the Arab world.

After graduating law school and serving as an officer in the United States Navy, I entered the world of New Jersey politics.  I did not anticipate that in New Jersey, the political realm is replete with genuine intellectuals that truly distinguishes the Garden State.  The following five individuals, in my view, stand out as New Jersey’s current leading political intellectuals. 

The first, Alvin S. Felzenberg, is truly in a class by himself.  He is, in my view, not only New Jersey’s leading political intellectual; he is indeed in the top five American political intellectuals as well. 

As a published author, I know how difficult it is to get one book published.  Al Felzenberg has had three books published that have attained landmark status. 

His book, Governor Tom Kean: From the New Jersey Statehouse to the 9/11 Commission, is the authoritative biography of New Jersey’s greatest governor of the 20th century.  In his book, The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game, Felzenberg sets forth cogently the most persuasive and analytical basis for rating presidents I have yet read.   Finally, his book, A Man and His Presidents — The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr.  was an absolute triumph that was featured by The New York Times as the leading book in a Sunday edition of their book review.

Al holds a Ph.D. from Princeton, and his academic achievements are second to none among contemporary American political figures.  He has served as a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.   He has lectured at Princeton, Yale, George Washington, and Johns Hopkins Universities. Since 2007, he has been visiting lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Yet Al Felzenberg has not been an ivory tower intellectual.  His service as a public official has been distinguished by policy insight, pragmatism, and superb communication skills.   

Among the many positions he has held, the two most noteworthy are  1) Principal Spokesman for the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission; and 2) assistant secretary of state in the administration of Governor Kean.  All things considered, his status as a New Jersey political intellectual is peerless and unrivaled. 

My next two individuals, Tom Kean and Jim Florio, gave New Jersey the unique status of being governed for three consecutive terms by political intellectuals of the highest rank.  This is a true tribute to our state of which we can be justifiably proud.  There never was, nor will be, any election for governor in any state in the union that compares with the 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial contest between Democrat Jim Florio and Republican Tom Kean, where the candidates from both political parties were intellectuals of such stature. 

Tom Kean’s intellectualism was not only a leading characteristic of his governorship.  After he completed his tenure as New Jersey’s chief executive, he became the president of Drew University, where he became a paradigm for all former political figures who aspire to academic leadership.  As Drew’s chief executive, he combined his intellectualism with his political “people” skills and administrative acumen to achieve major upgrades in the university curriculum and associated programs.  The course he taught, “Governing New Jersey” was among the most popular of Drew’s academic offerings. 

I have written columns in which I stated that had Jim Florio defeated Tom Kean in the 1981 gubernatorial race, he may well have been the Democratic presidential candidate in 1988 instead of Michael Dukakis.  He certainly had the right academic foundation for it, having studied as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at Columbia University under the tutelage of nonpareil presidential scholar Richard Neustadt. 

If you want to get the full flavor of Jim Florio’s intellectualism, read his autobiography, Standing on Principle – Lessons Learned in Public Life.   This is a political memoir that is unique in terms of its historical and sociological awareness. 

My fourth New Jersey political intellectual, Krista Jenkins, is celebrated for her status as the director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Public Mind Poll, which now ranks among the top polls in America.  What is not so well known is her outstanding intellectual achievements, including the articles and books she has authored and co-authored regarding gender and evolving American sociological values, including changing concepts of American valor and heroism.   

Krista puts it all together in her nationally acclaimed book, Mothers, Daughters, and Political Socialization: Two Generations at an American Women’s College.  In this work, utilizing her intensive study of mothers and daughters who attended Douglass College, Krista observes the changes in how women acquire their attitudes toward gender roles and behaviors in the post-women’s movement years.  Any credible gender studies program must include this book.  Krista’s intellectualism is most unique in her ability to analyze data in the context of her top-flight awareness of history and intensive knowledge of political science and sociology. 

My fifth leading New Jersey political intellectual is John Wefing, most accurately described by his title at Seton Hall University Law School, to wit, Distinguished Professor of New Jersey Law and History.  His unsurpassed expertise on the history, development, and continuously changing interpretation of the United States and New Jersey Constitutions makes him a figure of eternal relevance in the Garden State. 

Yet it is his biography of New Jersey’s iconic former governor and chief justice, The Life and Times of Richard J. Hughes: The Politics of Civility that defines him as a leading New Jersey political intellectual. This book is highly readable and continuously engrossing regarding one of New Jersey’s most remarkable leading figures in both the executive and judicial branches of state government.  In this Trumpian era of presidential anti-intellectualism and incivility, the narrative of John Wefing regarding the exquisite civility of Dick Hughes is a must-read.

My readers may have their own lists of top five political intellectuals.  Such lists, including mine, are largely subjective, and I welcome the discussion and debates on this issue.  All this will prove the veracity of my following statement, paraphrasing Tom Kean:  New Jersey and Political Intellectualism – Perfect Together!

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. 

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    Bridget Harrison and Ben Dworkin. They each have the unique ability to apply theory to modern day NJ politics.

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