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How America Forgot ‘Never Forget’

The 9/11 Commission warned us once. Let it be a lesson again

Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, here in 2004, made collaboration in crisis look easy. We should remember the lessons they taught, Grumet writes. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, here in 2004, made collaboration in crisis look easy. We should remember the lessons they taught, Grumet writes. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — This week calls for reflection as we pause to remember the 2,997 people who died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the thousands of Americans killed and wounded in military service to our country since that horrific day.

Seventeen years later, we also honor the heroic actions of two American statesmen, former Gov. Thomas Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton. They led the eight members of the 9/11 Commission — four Democrats and four Republicans — in an unprecedented, bipartisan effort to understand one of the worst tragedies in American history and to provide the government with a path forward to ensure it never happens again.

We have come to accept the idea that our nation comes together in times of crisis. But collaboration in crises is neither easy nor inevitable. The commission’s work took place during the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, and amid fierce and divisive debates about the Iraq War.

Under different leadership, the commission could have easily devolved into partisan finger-pointing focused on blame instead of solutions. Instead, Kean and Hamilton understood that success depended upon building trust among commission members, recruiting an expert staff, building a strong factual record, listening to all relevant viewpoints and always presenting a united front. In short, they knew then what too many are forgetting now.

That’s how the 9/11 Commission produced a unanimous report with broad bipartisan credibility. Since then, nearly all its 41 recommendations have been adopted into law, making the government far better prepared than it was before 9/11. Thanks to the vigilance and determination of those involved in protecting our country, there has not been another catastrophic attack on that scale on our soil.

Service first

The dedication of Kean and Hamilton to public service was evident well before their work on the 9/11 Commission.

Kean served two terms as governor of New Jersey from 1982 to 1990. A leader in education reform, advocacy for the arts, and environmental protection, he also presided over the first measure enacted by any state to divest from apartheid South Africa. “The best thing about being governor, and the only thing I really miss about it, is that I didn’t go home any night without feeling I had done something for somebody,” Kean said.

President George W. Bush, in appointing him to lead the 9/11 Commission, said: “Tom Kean is a leader respected for his integrity, fairness, and good judgment. I am confident he will work to make the commission’s investigation thorough.”

Hamilton served as the representative from Indiana’s 9th District from 1965 to 1999. A leader on foreign policy and international issues, he chaired several panels, including Foreign Affairs, and Intelligence, along with the House’s Iran-Contra investigation.

And their service didn’t end there. After the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission’s work, Hamilton went on to lead the Iraq Study Group. “At a time when foreign policy issues are part of the partisan trench warfare of Washington, there aren’t many people who can rise above it, but [Hamilton] is one of them,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said while serving with him on the group.

Lessons unceasing

Kean and Hamilton continued to be leaders in national security, forming the 9/11 Public Discourse Project to press for the implementation of the commission’s recommendations. They joined the Bipartisan Policy Center as co-chairs of its National Security Project, where they persisted in their post-9/11 warnings about failures of imagination, management, capabilities and policies that might threaten our national security.

In honor of their lifelong commitment to public service, and the example they have set in putting the national security interests of their country over partisan posturing, BPC is recognizing Kean and Hamilton with its 2018 Patriot Award.

The award recognizes leaders who demonstrate political courage and exceptional leadership throughout their careers, even in the most partisan of times, when others might retreat from the challenges of opposing interests, ideology and demands of our diverse nation.

The legacy of 9/11 is not just one of tragedy. It is also one of national resilience and unity. As we honor Governor Kean and Congressman Hamilton, we remember that legacy and hope we can learn from it in today’s divisive times. There is no cause more vital than keeping American lives safe, and bipartisanship will always be fundamental to that mission.

“We don’t live in a perfect world, and we can’t attain one. But in the end, politics is about striving to get there — to make the world, or at least this country, better,” Hamilton said.

Jason Grumet is founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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