At the White House
Assistant to the president
Counselor to the vice president
I was standing at the vice president's outer desk-this oft-told story-and the Secret Service swept in and carried him away. Nobody knew what to do. Then we got evacuated to the mess. I was not freaked out by this, but then all the mess people were getting evacuated out of the building. So I just went with that crowd, and that's the crowd that was saying, "Run, run, run! A plane is going to hit the White House!"
I was going to a labor meeting that day, so I had dressed up in my one good outfit and these hideous high heels. Just walking in those shoes and that skirt was a nightmare. I thought, "Well, I should go home to work; I'm not going to be able to work here." I stepped in front of a cab and said, "Take me to Virginia," and the guy jumped out, left the car running, left the door open, and just started running. And I looked around-cars were all just stopped, and no phones worked, and it was like The Day After.
Then out of nowhere, my cell phone rings, and it was the President's Emergency Operations Center saying, "The vice president wants you now. Where are you? You've got to get back here!" I go running back in those high heels from hell, and get to the Pennsylvania Avenue gate, and there were guys with guns: "You can't go there! You can't go there!" I'm not usually one to fight with men with guns, so I put whoever that person was from the bunker on the phone with the guy with the gun, and still there was much confusion, and finally that guy on the phone convinced the guy with the gun to escort me to the next guy with a gun-and I'm not talking about water pistols here. So, they finally escorted me all along this labyrinth, and it occurred to me then, if I hadn't thought it was serious earlier, that something very, very globally serious was going on.
I walked right into the midst of the vice president saying, "How should we make a public statement?" He was very firm that the president should do it. Did we have ideas? And my construct was that: A) The government was attacked; B) the government exists still; and C) the military has been deployed, and the civil defense is on duty. Whatever else you wanted to say, those were the things they needed to know, first and foremost. So he was then on the phone with the president talking about that.
Then I tried to get ahold of my kids and my husband. I called his office and said to his staff, "Take two cars, get two kids, and bring them to one place. Do it! Do it! I don't know what's going on, and I'm not going to be able to call you back. Tell James I'm safe."
Then I tried to go back to work. There are two video functions in the bunker. One is the teleconferencing, and off to the side was this big-screen TV. But there was some technical problem: You could only have the sound on one or the other. The vice president obviously wanted to keep talking to the Pentagon, but then he couldn't hear what was on CNN. He just demanded that it get fixed, now. How could it not work? It was as mad as I'd ever seen him up to that point.
Once you are underground, then you're underground-totally at the mercy of what was running on CNN. It wasn't a chaotic situation, but it was a cacophony of information. For some reason, we all were looking at the TV when the second tower fell. It was some kind of pivotal moment, which to this day I can't articulate. I don't think we worked any differently before or after it, but it was unimaginable. I don't ever remember being scared, except for my kids.
When the president got to Offutt, he and the vice president were teleconferencing and the vice president was saying, "I'm about to brief the leadership." And the president filled the screen-he leaned into the screen and he said, "Make sure you tell them that this is the focus of my administration, and we're going to get these guys!" You could have heard a pin drop. That was the first time that we'd seen him. It was an emotional turning point. We felt more oriented, and connected, not so cut adrift. It was like we were all now in one place.
An embarrassing moment: Karen Hughes and I wanted to do something with the press. I said, "Let's bring the press back in." And the Secret Service would not let the press back in the grounds. I guess they thought the White House was still a target. And I just lost it, and I started screaming: "We have to talk to America! This is ridiculous!" I wasn't trying to not protect the press, but I made a scene, which I immediately regretted.
So then Karen and I were kind of like, "Where can we go that we have a press facility?" And I'm like, "Well, I'm not going anywhere in these high heels!" Someone figured out that we could be driven to the FBI, which is where we ended up for the statement. Karen was uncharacteristically nervous. I held her then: "Breathe! Breathe! You'll be great." She took a deep breath and steeled her shoulders, and she went out there and she was great. Then we came back to the bunker.
The next day, with 10 minutes' notice, some staff got evacuated and moved to the first of the undisclosed secure locations with the vice president. It felt more like a campaign to me-you just collapse into bed at night and have a coma sleep. When we were at this location, while I was working, we were kind of in a netherworld. Late one night, I turned on the TV. All this stuff was happening out there in the real world, on this little, teeny screen, and we were so removed from it, and yet so working on it; and I remember sitting on the end of the bed, and it hit me: Real people died. I just sat there and I did cry. I wasn't sad; I wasn't angry. I was like, this doesn't happen in civilization.
That Sunday night I asked the senior staff, "Was someone going to tell us how to talk to our kids? What should we say?" I thought our circumstances would require particular tutelage in how to speak to our children. It was my then-6-year-old, Matty, who said, "Mommy, I think we should"-I cry when I talk about this-"I think we should pray for Osama bin Laden." I just did what I'm doing now; I couldn't even speak. She said, "He's just a sad person and he's very sick, and we need to pray for him." And I remember thinking, where does this child get this gift? That came from something inside her.
This interview originally appeared in the August 31, 2002 edition of National Journal.
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