Rare are those moments when political scientists find themselves in the midst of political crisis as both observer and participant. As a political scientist specializing in the study of Congress, I was working on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., as a 2001 American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow. While on the Hill, I sought to gain a better understanding of the basics of congressional life, including how Congress works, how bills become law, and how members of Congress make decisions. That year involved a steep learning curve as I juggled the responsibilities of both a full-time Hill staffer and an advanced graduate student conducting interviews and gathering data for my dissertation on women and politics. I had the privilege of working in a leadership office and consequently had great access to members, personal staff, committee staff, party staff, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and a host of other political elite. This made elite interviews much easier to secure and research much easier to conduct. It was within this milieu that I experienced both the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks in October 2001.
On 9/11, I remember being interrupted from my dissertation work to go with some friends in the office down to the cafeteria in the basement of the Longworth House Of ce Building for our ritualistic morning dose of caffeine. They asked me if I had seen the breaking news of a plane flying into one of the World Trade Towers. I had not even had enough time to turn on the television in my cubicle, so I just listened as they bounced ideas back and forth about possible culprits. There was no question in their minds about whether it was an intentional attack. Given the number of easily identifiable foreign threats to American security, they (p.ix) did not need to ask why it had happened. Rather, the question was who was responsible.
When we returned with our coffee and sodas, we entered an office scene I will never forget. In most offices of members of Congress, televisions are mounted in the corners almost to the ceiling. This makes them viewable to anyone in the office or in the waiting area. They are also sprinkled throughout staff cubicles and members’ chambers. Every room has a television, and every station is tuned to either C-SPAN or the news.
One of the key points made by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in his account of this event concerns the centrality of the media as a source of government information. The events on 9/11 made this reality painfully clear.
It’s hard to fathom—or maybe we simply don’t want to believe—that our leaders in the upper levels of government in Washington, the people we turn to for confidence and security in times of crises, might, at just such a time, be as utterly clueless as everyone else. But the fact is that while we often are privy to sources of communication and information that the average citizen does not have, we just as often get the only information we have from the same place everyone else gets it—in many instances, from television. Walk through the Capitol on any given day, and you’ll see a TV in every House and Senate office tuned in to CNN or C-SPAN. Those sets are turned on from the moment the office is unlocked in the morning until the last person leaves late at night. In the chaos and confusion of September 11, I was as dependent on the network television reports—at least early on—as everybody else.1
When we entered the office, we were looking at a sea of throats. All eyes were on the televisions mounted high in the corners, and all mouths were dropped wide open at the sight of a second tower on fire. My friend (who is now my husband) took his soda to his corner cubicle and began to surf television stations to find additional information. He then went around the corner to the chief of staff’s office to be the first to notify her of the attack on the Pentagon. Our world, Washington, D.C., was under attack. Everyone in the office scrambled for a phone to call loved ones. I called my mother. She begged me to leave the building.
Office personnel frantically began calling the “authorities” around the Hill to identify the plan of action. Capitol Police were at a loss. They were waiting for directions from the Speaker’s Of ce. The Speaker’s Off ce was at a loss. To our knowledge, nothing like this had ever happened (p.x) before. Individual offices began to evacuate the Capitol grounds. “Keep your cell phone on!” The words rang out from every office up and down every hall.
I was parked in Lot 7, just below the Cannon House Office Building on C Street. I offered to take those staffers without a car with me, away from the Capitol. As we hurried to the parking lot, we smelled smoke. To the southwest of the Capitol, you could see it billowing over the trees. The Pentagon was on fire.
We drove southbound on I-395 before authorities closed it to through trafic. The radio stations issued unsubstantiated reports of bombs at the White House, at the State Department, and on the Mall. For the first and only time in my life, I remember rolling down the windows to see and to hear the news for myself.
Our destination was an apartment in Arlington at the Courthouse metro stop. We turned on Washington Boulevard and stopped at a gas station to refuel before working our way through the heaving trafic. The attendant pumped our gas and shared his experience with us. He had watched a plane pass over his station before plowing into the side of the Pentagon. It was an American flight, and the crash was intentional. On (p.xi) the roads, emergency vehicles slowly screamed through the rows of cars. Ambulances passed with doors gaping open to provide room for more wounded as they made countless trips back and forth to the Pentagon.
At the apartment, I tried to distract myself. The Pentagon was in plain view from the thirteenth floor. It was ablaze. (It would smolder for several more days.) I cooked and cleaned and focused on providing creature comforts for all those staffers who had gathered to be together in this apartment on such a strange day. A video message from Osama bin Laden was followed by breaking news of harrowing tales from New York City and our very own backyard. The constant tickers across the television screen eventually became too much to process. It was all just too much to bear.
The next day we returned to work, but there was nothing normal about it. The phones did not ring. Constituents did not visit. Planes did not fly. Life did not return to normal.
Within hours that Wednesday morning, staff began to don swatches of red, white, and blue ribbon purchased at the House Gift Shop in the basement of the Longworth House Of ce Building. We were all wearing safety-pinned ribbons by day’s end. These symbols of patriotic unity soon (p.xii) appeared on all the news stations and eventually became the icon for remembering the 9/11 event.
Over the course of the next few days, offices across Capitol Hill draped huge American flags vertically from their windows to signify that the country was in mourning. Stores nationwide had difficulty keeping enough flags in stock to satisfy the demand caused by the events of 9/11. Yet there was something particularly striking about this outpouring of patriotism by those working in and around our nation’s Capitol. These flags served as a symbol to the world of the courage and resilience of democratic government in the brutal face of terrorism.
Just a month later, as life began to return to normal, a letter laced with anthrax was discovered in Senator Tom Daschle’s (D-SD) office. I remember this experience as being quite different from the events of 9/11, but just as significant and disturbing. On Capitol Hill, mail typically is opened by the interns or the legislative correspondents. These positions usually are filled by the youngest adults on the Hill. Interns are in their early twenties, and legislative correspondents are not much older. Given that no one knew how widespread the anthrax attack would be, the incident in Daschle’s office struck fear in the hearts of administrative (p.xiii) personnel across the Capitol campus. How would offices protect their youngest staff from the faceless yet deadly weapon of anthrax?
Immediately the House and the Senate leadership debated over the appropriate course of action. To end the session and close the Capitol Complex would communicate that the attack had succeeded in disrupting legislative life. On the other hand, the leadership did have to consider the health and safety of the thousands of congressional staff under their supervision. This event provided me with a rare opportunity to appreciate the power of the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate to serve as chief administrators of Congress. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) opted to end the House’s session and evacuate the Capitol grounds, while Majority Leader Daschle initially chose to keep the Senate in session. It was also interesting to witness the discretion exercised by individual offices over evacuation. Several members of Congress chose to defy Capitol Police orders. By staying on Capitol Hill, they placed their staff in the precarious dilemma of either doing their jobs or listening to their parents and loved ones.
All offices ultimately were evacuated for an indefinite period of time. For staff, that was probably the most difficult feature of the whole event. For those used to the fast-paced, relentless hours of Hill life, an indefinite evacuation rattled the nerves. Only the most critical members of congressional staff reported to duty during that period, the chiefs of staff and legislative directors. The entire Capitol Complex was screened for anthrax, and several buildings tested positive for contamination. In a piecemeal fashion, staff slowly began to return to their offices once the space was officially decontaminated. Some staff returned within two weeks. Others were sent to work at of -site locations while their offices were systematically cleaned by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). It would be months before things fully would return to normal around the Capitol.
I left Washington, D.C., in November 2001 to finish my dissertation, but I would never leave the experiences emblazoned in my memory by that fall. After a few years of teaching and the successful publication of my dissertation, I returned my attention to the impact that the events of 9/11 and anthrax had made on the offices, the staff, and the life on the Hill that I had come to know and appreciate. What I discovered over the course of my investigation provides the substance for this book.
I find myself faced with the same question that concerned Richard (p.xiv) Fenno in the aftermath of the 1988 Republican National Convention. After following Senator Dan Quayle for six years as part of a book project on the U.S. Senate, Fenno had both gathered rich historical, personal, and political detail about Quayle’s life and career, and in the process become his friend. Fenno knew that he had important information about Quayle that could inform the media and voters, but he also knew that his friendship might taint his ability to offer objective treatment of Quayle’s candidacy for vice presidential office. Placed in this unique situation, Fenno realized the fundamental difficulty associated with being both a participant in and an observer of politics.2 As a participant observer, how does one achieve a suitable balance between access and objectivity? Throughout this text, I have tried to be sensitive to the potential bias caused by my unique position as a congressional aide during these attacks. Consequently, the conclusions are based not solely on my own recollections, but also on the reflections of more than seventy-five political elites, each with differing backgrounds and perspectives on the impact of terrorism on Capitol Hill.
It is my hope that this book sheds light on a congressional culture that is not easily measured but that is nevertheless real and has changed over the last several years. For the academic, this work draws from multiple theoretical frameworks, multiple methods, and multiple data sources to capture the full extent of the change on Capitol Hill and the meaning implicit in it. For the student, this book is about real congressional life. It is about the fascinating people, the awe-inspiring place, and the unique culture that pervades the Capitol. Most of all, however, it is about the changes that crisis events can bring to such an important place.
(1) Tom Daschle with Michael D’Orso, Like No Other Time: The 107th Congress and the Two Years That Changed America Forever (New York: Crown Publishers, 2003), 108.
(2) Richard F. Fenno Jr., Watching Politicians: Essays on Participant Observation (Berkeley, Calif.: Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California at Berkeley, 1990).