Published on Thursday, April 1, 2004 by the New York Times
9/11 Widows Skillfully Applied the Power of a Question: Why?
by Sheryl Gay Stolberg
WASHINGTON — Kristen Breitweiser was at home in Middletown, N.J., cleaning out closets. Patty Casazza of Colts Neck was dashing to the dry cleaners. Lorie Van Auken of East Brunswick was headed out to do grocery shopping. Her neighbor Mindy Kleinberg had just packed her children off to school.
Then came word, Tuesday morning, that
Americans just tuning in to the work of the commission investigating the attacks may not have heard of Ms. Breitweiser and the rest. But on Capitol Hill, these suburban women are gaining prominence as savvy World Trade Center widows who came to Washington, as part of a core group of politically active relatives of Sept. 11 victims, and prodded Congress and a recalcitrant White House to create the panel that this week brought official Washington to its knees.
"They call me all the time," said Thomas H. Kean, the commission's chairman and a former Republican governor of New Jersey. "They monitor us, they follow our progress, they've supplied us with some of the best questions we've asked. I doubt very much if we would be in existence without them."
The families have spent months pressing for Ms. Rice's public testimony; when the White House failed to send her to last week's hearings, they walked out in silent protest. On Tuesday, two Democratic senators, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Charles E. Schumer of New York, suggested that the families think about asking Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to testify publicly as well.
Ms. Van Auken said that had always been their preference. "Of course we would like them to testify publicly," she said Wednesday.
Before Sept. 11, the Jersey girls (the nickname, which distinguishes the women from their New York and Connecticut counterparts, was popularized in song by Bruce Springsteen) knew little about government and less about politics. The closest Ms. Casazza came to foreign affairs was processing visa applications for French trainees while working for the cosmetics company Lancôme. Ms. Van Auken could not keep the two chambers of Congress straight.
"I remember saying to Patty: `Which one is the one with more people, the Senate or the House?' " she recalled.
The story of how they helped move a seemingly immoveable bureaucracy is at once the tale of a political education, and a sisterhood born of grief. They gathered Monday in the sun-drenched living room of Ms. Casazza's spacious home to tell it. The place, with its well-tended lawn and tennis court out back, spoke of another life. Ms. Casazza, who has a 13-year-old son, is planning to sell it. "Downsizing," she said simply.
Three of them were married to men who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, but the women were strangers until after the attacks. Ms. Breitweiser, 33, and Ms. Casazza, 43, voted for Mr. Bush in 2000. Ms. Van Auken, 49, and Ms. Kleinberg, 42, voted for Al Gore. All insist they had no political agenda, then or now.
But they had a burning question. "We simply wanted to know why our husbands were killed," Ms. Breitweiser said, "why they went to work one day and didn't come back."
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were pressing for a commission; in December 2001, Senator
The women went to Home Depot, sawed wood for signs and staged a Washington rally; 300 people came out in the blistering heat. They staked out lawmakers and boarded the elevators marked "Senators Only." They wheedled their way into the White House. Jay Lefkowitz, a former Bush domestic policy adviser, recalls giving them chocolate chip cookies, even as he successfully opposed some demands.
They stayed up nights surfing the Web, taking notes on things like Islamic radicalism and the Federal Aviation Administration's hijacking protocols.
"The Internet," Ms. Breitweiser said, "has been our fifth widow."
In the Capitol, they cried, they pleaded, they cajoled. Ms. Breitweiser showed her husband's wedding ring, found at ground zero still attached to his finger. Ms. Casazza brought photos of a Cantor Fitzgerald pool party, telling lawmakers, "All the men are dead."
They befriended reporters: Gail Sheehy, in The New York Observer, dubbed them "the four moms." With her articulate manner and Ivory girl complexion, Ms. Breitweiser became a fixture on the television networks.
"No one wanted to say no to these women," said a Republican who participated in negotiations over the commission. He said the women "were used" by Democrats, an accusation Republicans repeated recently when Ms. Breitweiser criticized the Sept. 11 images in a Bush campaign advertisement. It is an acccusation she hotly denies.
Since the commission began its work, the Sept. 11 relatives, who call themselves the Family Steering Committee, have dogged its every move. When the panel complained of a lack of money, they lobbied for a bigger budget — and won. When the House speaker, J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, refused to grant the panel an extension, they headed to Washington again, and the speaker retreated. "Public pressure by the 9/11 families," Mr. Hastert's spokesman, John Feehery, said about the reversal. "There is no doubt about that."
For every battle they have won, though, the families have lost others. The commission rejected their calls to subpoena classified intelligence briefings and to fire its executive director, Philip D. Zelikow, who co-wrote a book with Ms. Rice. The families also complained that last week's hearings deteriorated into a partisan spat over a book by Richard A. Clarke, the former counterterrorism official. "They were right on that one," Mr. Kean conceded.
So the Jersey girls are not congratulating themselves now on Ms. Rice. "There are no victories here," Ms. Casazza said. Ms. Breitweiser added: "A victory implies that this is a game. And this is not a game."
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company