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“It probably bonded them for the rest of their lives.”
The late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s former press secretary, Jim Manley, had an inside view on how the attacks immediately diminished the importance of politics on the Hill. Then-first lady Laura Bush was scheduled to testify in front of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that morning. It was one of her first policy-related appearances, and preparation for the event had consumed her in recent weeks.
“I spent most of the morning going over the briefing I was supposed to give,” she said in a Smithsonian Channel documentary. “It was about nine months into George being president, and I was really just hitting my stride as first lady.”
An equal amount of preparation went into the event on the Democratic side.
“We had an ongoing skirmish with the White House about what to call it,” Manley said. “They didn’t want us to call it a hearing, so there was a lot of back-and-forth before we agreed to call it a roundtable discussion. Regardless, it was going to be a high-profile thing.”
The second plane struck the World Trade Center just before the first lady arrived, and she was escorted into Kennedy’s inner office as the chaos around them unfolded.
“It was just me, Sen. Kennedy, the first lady and Kennedy’s Portuguese water dog, Splash,” Manley said. “It was this calm space in contrast to what was going on with the staff in the conference room next door. Outside the office there were televisions blaring, the chief of staff was trying to get everyone on the phone, people were shouting and running around. But in there it was quiet. I will never forget it.”
The emotional intensity of that day, and sharing it in such a personal setting, created an unlikely but lasting connection between the first lady and the Senator.
“She was in there with Sen. Kennedy, amidst all of the Senator’s stuff — his dog tags, his personal memorabilia, the pictures on the wall,” Manley said. “She later praised the Senator for his calm demeanor and level head. It probably bonded them for the rest of their lives.”
“The news reported that there had been explosions down at the Mall.”
There have been so many changes in disaster response on the Hill in the 10 years since the attacks that the pre-9/11 Capitol would scarcely be recognizable to an incoming Member today. Jeff Donahue was an electrician working for the Architect of the Capitol, and he remembered how quaint the response systems were back then.
“When news came that the Pentagon had been hit, there was a big rush to evacuate,” he said. “But the fire alarm system wasn’t set to go off for something like that, and the emergency broadcast system wasn’t prepared for something of that scale either — all of that came later. We just knew that we had to get out of the building, so that’s what we did.”
The confusion surrounding the evacuation continued on the streets outside.