Cable TV is truly a frightening collage of discordant images. You just never know the possible enormity of what you will see until you turn on the box. Then it's too late. The only certainty is that the grotesque will trump the normal with sickening predictability. Last week I was depressed to see a newspaper account of an eight legged baby. Why? Because I knew to a certainty that I could not escape the week without seeing the nightmarish octa-child herself. And of course I did. "Minding my own business" as they say, enjoying a Cobb Salad in my favorite bistro, I chanced to look up to the TV and ....need I finish, of course not.
Thus steeled, I was barely up to the shock of a documentary celebrating the life and works of Tom Kean this morning. The image of Alvin Felzenberg, a sort of fay gargoyle acting in his customary role as the Kean family's version of Arthur Schlesinger, goes no better with yogurt than Cobb Salad does with spider children. Felzenberg has been riding his association with Kean for so long it's difficult to imagine him in any other context. One imagines him living somewhere on the Kean estate like Quasimodo. I remember him during the campaign of 1980 as one of Tom's "Friends" who had to be appeased.
This documentary was so fawning, it's difficult to believe that it wasn't made to advance some purpose. But given Tom's age and position as the last of the Town and Country Republicans on the national scene, it difficult to imagine what. The portion I watched trumpeted his work of the 9/11 commission before attending to the inevitable "early years" segment showing Tom as an earnest schoolboy and committed youth. The long family legacy of noblesse oblige got it's due. I turned it off as Tom made the fateful decision to spend his life in the pursuit of making New Jersey a better place to live rather than of polo. Now it must be said that Tom Kean is a very decent man as far as I could tell working on his campaign in 80' and serving in his administration. But a truthful documentary might have touched on a few less happy points.
1. An old Mongol proverb states, "It's better to be ruled by a vulture surrounded by swans than a swan surrounded by vultures." Kean had an unerring eye for mediocrity in his close associates. He populated the state house with people who played a large part in the Republican crack-up of the Whitman years. Appointing Hazel Gluck to a cabinet position must surely count as some sort of political vandalism.
2. We were all acutely aware during the administration that the Reagan boom, flooding the treasury with money kept us in power; that, and the genius of Gregg Stevens in mobilizing the power of the executive branch into one big reelection machine. Lest we forget, the Reagan administration helped Kean, while Kean felt no compunction about turning his back on Reagan over and over.
3. Tom Kean converted the opportunity of a generation to change the political landscape of his state into a lack-luster exercise in high-mindedness. When he left power, the state bureaucracy was twice its original size, the Supreme Court still ran the state by judicial ukase, and the whole extended family of union thugs, race hustlers, developers and donors inherited what was left.
One curious aspect of the documentary was the mantra of "the Politics of Possibility" repeated again and again. The sheer vacuousness of this praise leaves little doubt as to its author. But wasn't Tom Kean the avatar of "The Politics of Inclusion" ? Are these bon mots interchangeable? Does anyone care? I once asked a prominent campaign consultant what he thought of the slogan "Strength through Joy." He thought it was just fantastic. I should have let him use it.