Tom Kean Wants to Develop a Generation of Leaders who Trust Each Other
(This article originally appeared in Politico)
By Kathryn McGarr
July 20th, 2009
Perle Mesta would have been pleased. In a private room at Zola restaurant in the trendy Penn Quarter neighborhood, a handful of young Senate staffers — from both parties, mind you — dined recently with former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean to learn how to do things old-school.
That is, in a civilized way, over a glass of wine, checking their partisanship at the door.
Kean had a mission: develop a new generation of Washington leaders who don’t instinctively distrust one another, and try to get more buy in for the Partnership for a Secure America, which advocates bipartisanship on foreign policy.
It’s a lofty goal in a town where young Republican and Democratic staffers are hardened early by their partisan identities. These partisans work separately, happy hour separately and rarely even engage in interparty dating. Whereas members of Congress at least have the opportunity to work together if they choose to do so, staffers are rarely forced to remove their partisan blinders.
Kean serves on the advisory board of PSA, which just launched a project known as the Congressional Fellows Program, which gives staffers on both sides of the aisle a rare chance to see how the other half lives. Twenty-six 20-something Hill staffers were chosen for the summer session this year, and part of the program is spending quality time with political veterans like Kean, a moderate Republican known throughout his career for being a reach-across-the-aisle sort of guy.
During dinner, served at one long table that seated 14 people, the 74-year-old Kean spoke wistfully about growing up in a Washington where the two parties worked together in (almost) perfect harmony.
He began with stories of his father, a congressman of 20 years who was a top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee during the ’50s.
“The committee chairman used to come to the house,” Kean recalled. “And they’d sit there, and over a drink or a cup of tea they’d discuss the agenda for the week and what they could get along with and what they could get done.”
Sounds almost quaint compared to the modern Ways and Means Committee, which has been the scene of some of the past few years’ most vicious partisan battles over tax policy.
Democrats on that committee later endorsed Kean’s father for Senate. “Now, that would be incredible today — those kinds of friendships and that kind of respect across the aisle,” Kean said. “But that’s just the way I was brought up.”
This bit of nostalgia is aimed at inspiring the staffers.
“For me, some of the stories are stories I’ve heard hundreds of times since I’ve been in D.C.,” said Pablo Duran, who has worked for Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), formerly a House member, for six years. “I want to find out if there’s a way back to that.”
Duran lamented that outside of this fellowship program, there are few chances for him to meet Republican staffers.
Brandon Andrews, who works for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), said his experience as an African-American Republican makes him naturally more bipartisan, but he sees few opportunities for his colleagues to cross the aisle — both socially and professionally.
“I don’t know that anyone makes a concerted effort to not do it,” Andrews said. “I just think it doesn’t happen, because people travel in different circles.”
CFP was the brainchild of PSA Board of Directors Chairman Chip Andreae, who worked for Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) for 13 years, beginning in 1977. Andreae attributed much of his bipartisan work on foreign policy issues to the time he spent with fellow junior staffers on trips abroad.
Stricter ethics regulations make that kind of travel all but impossible these days. But in establishing its fellowship program in 2009, with a $250,600 grant from the Carnegie Foundation, PSA staffers hoped to recreate Andreae’s experience for a new generation.
Dinner with Kean, the third event for Senate fellows, was a throwback to the Washington of yesteryear. “I think this is, in a positive way, a mock-up of the good old days,” said current Lugar aide Jonathan McCaskey Rosenbaum.
The staffers have also gone through exercises in negotiation and have staged a mock National Security Council meeting.
PSA Executive Director Matthew Rojansky said that the idea behind CFP was “to reach people before they think they know how business is done.”
Kean tried to share more recent experiences in which bipartisanship actually worked — and in which nobody was accused of being a sellout to the other party. Kean co-chaired the 9/11 Commission with former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), who co-founded PSA with former Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) in 2005.
Kean emphasized the social aspect of getting along with the other party on the professional front.
“It’s hard to get terribly upset or nasty with someone if your children are friends, if your spouses are friends,” Kean said in an interview with POLITICO at the Melrose Hotel. He repeated this quote twice during the dinner at Zola.
As Kean pointed out, though, a compressed workweek and more demanding fundraising schedule means members of Congress and their families spend less time in D.C., especially on weekends. Most members of Congress race for the airports on the last votes of the week so they can fly home, and their families rarely socialize in Washington.
There’s been another generational shift on the social front. Washington wives, as defined by their politician husbands, don’t exist on as large a scale as they did pre-1970s. There are of course more women in Congress and more female staffers than in either Kean’s or his dad’s generation, so the social dynamic has changed as well. Only three of the 11 Senate fellows in CFP, however, are women.
As Kean made his plea for a more bipartisan atmosphere away from the Capitol dome, the fellows dined on a three-course meal that included a field-green salad, a choice of chicken breast or ricotta-stuffed shells and a pastry topped with berries and whipped cream.
It may not have been the event that Mesta, the legendary “hostess with the mostess” would have planned for the D.C. elite, but there were votives and multiple forks. Besides, these guys aren’t the D.C. elite. Not yet, anyway.