'She Asked Me How to Stop the Plane'

by Toby Harnden
The Telegraph
March 5, 2002



US Solicitor General Ted Olson's wife, Barbara, was the first victim of the September 11 terrorist attacks to be named. He tells Toby Harnden of her bravery during her final call from the hijacked plane - and of his determination to fight back

A little over two months after his wife was killed on September 11, Ted Olson, the Solicitor General of the United States, received a photograph from the US Air Force. It showed a laser-guided missile before it was launched from a strike aircraft against a Taliban target in Afghanistan. The name Barbara Olson had been chalked on the side of the weapon in her memory.

"It looked like a 500lb bomb," says Ted Olson, his grief-racked face creasing into a smile for the first time in nearly an hour. "She would have liked that. Barbara was a warrior, so she would have wanted to fight back. And she would have applauded the people who did go and fight back."

Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political strategist, has described Barbara, a writer, lawyer and political commentator, as "Ted's departed Spitfire". Apart from the Clintons, she and her husband were probably America's most combative couple - he in the courtroom and she on the talk shows, America's 21st-century court of public opinion. The couple liked to joke that they were at the heart of what Hillary Clinton - the subject of Barbara's excoriating biography Hell to Pay - famously described as a "vast, right-wing conspiracy".

Their beautiful colonial-style mansion in Great Falls, Virginia, was the venue for huge parties at which the conservative intelligentsia would gather. The Olsons were wine connoisseurs and would often travel to California to replenish their cellar.

She always drove a Jaguar; he preferred a Mercedes, after years of favouring Porsches. They shared a love of poetry, Shakespeare and the opera and were keen collectors of modern art. He named their first Australian Shepherd dog Maggie, after Lady Thatcher. She called the second one Reagan, after the president her husband had represented during the Iran-Contra hearings in the 1980s.

They were married in 1996, he for the third time and she for the second, but they seemed more like high-school sweethearts. Throughout the working day, they would speak on what they called the "bat phone". Each would turn down dinner invitations if the other was not included.

Today, Ted looks wretched; his eyes begin to redden and he occasionally wipes away a tear as he talks. He returned to work six days after September 11 and has been putting in 80-hour weeks ever since, leaving home each morning at 5.30am. Among the issues he has championed has been new anti-terrorist legislation.

He has rationalised his wife's death, but still seems unable to accept she is gone. "You see a blonde woman walking through a crowd, or you see something that reminds you of that person, the way a person turns their head, or their shoes - Barbara wore these very flashy, high-heeled shoes - things like that," he says. "I get reminded of her in scores of ways every day, in something I see or something that flashes through my mind."

We are sitting in the office of the Solicitor General on the fifth floor of the Justice Department building in Washington. One wall is lined with leather-bound volumes of Supreme Court arguments. An ancient, well-thumbed copy of the US constitution is propped up on Olson's reassuringly untidy desk.

This is the man who argued in the Supreme Court for the winning side in the Bush versus Gore case that decided the presidential election in 2000. As a result, Olson's Democratic opponents in the Senate came close to blocking his nomination as the Bush administration's chief courtroom advocate. Soon, he will be defending Vice President Dick Cheney's refusal to hand over documents to Congress as part of the investigation into the Enron scandal, and he will have to do so without his staunchest ally.

In their 11 years together, the Olsons seemed indivisible, as well as formidable. "Everybody identified us as 'Barbara and Ted'," he says. "It wasn't 'Ted' and 'Barbara' separately. It was a love affair, and a deep, abiding friendship. It was a partnership in every sense of the word."

The final time I saw them together was last summer, at a small dinner on Capitol Hill. Olson had just won his nomination fight and gave us an update on the partisan struggle that was shaping up in Congress. "We are at war," I remember him saying, as his wife nodded vigorously in agreement.

A few weeks later, I interviewed Barbara and three other conservative women about the new mood in Washington. A loose comment of hers - that President Bill Clinton's late mother had been "a bar-fly" who had allowed herself to be used by men - was noticed by the Washington Post and Democrats rushed to castigate her for being cruel and unfeeling. Many people would have blamed the journalist for misquoting her or tried to wriggle out some other way, but Barbara Olson didn't.

"Barbara's reaction was, 'I did say it'," says Ted. "She would never duck responsibility. It was a hurtful thing and she wished she hadn't said it. She thought the right thing to do was to make a forthright, unequivocal, direct apology, so she did. That's the kind of thing that I respect. She didn't try to soften it. She would not run away from the consequences of her actions."

It was her last newspaper interview. On September 11, American Airlines Flight 77 plunged into the Pentagon with Barbara Olson on board. It was Ted Olson's 61st birthday that day and Barbara had delayed flying to Los Angeles so they could celebrate over dinner the night before.

That morning, a nightmare began to unfold in the room where we are now sitting. "Someone rushed in and told me what had happened. I went into the other room, where there's a television," Olson says. "It went through my mind, 'My God, maybe - Barbara's on an airplane, and two airplanes have been crashed', you know."

Then his secretary told him that Barbara was on the line. "My first reaction when I heard she was on the phone was relief, because I knew that she wasn't on one of those two airplanes." But Barbara then explained calmly that she had been herded to the back of the Boeing 757 she was on, along with the other passengers.

"She had had trouble getting through, because she wasn't using her cellphone, she was using the phone in the passengers' seats," says Olson. "I guess she didn't have her purse, because she was calling collect, and she was trying to get through to the Department of Justice, which is never very easy."

He was able to tell her about the World Trade Centre attacks before the line went dead, then he called his departmental command centre to let them know another plane had been hijacked. The phone rang again and it was Barbara.

"She wanted to know, 'What can I tell the pilot? What can I do? How can I stop this?' I tried to find out where she thought she was - I wanted to know where the airplane was and what direction it was going in, because I thought that was the first step to being able to do something.

"We both tried to reassure one another that everything was going to be OK, she was still alive, the plane was still up in the air. But I think she knew that it wasn't going to be OK and I knew it wasn't going to be OK."

They were able to have "personal exchanges", he says, before they were cut off in mid-conversation. "It just stopped. It could be the impact, although I think she would have There's no point in speculating."

As soon as he heard a plane had crashed at the Pentagon, he says, "I knew it was her". Olson's voice, which his wife once described as a "rich, rumbling, sort of makes-your-ribs-vibrate" sound, begins to scratch like tired feet wading through gravel. It drops to a whisper and he fetches a glass of water.

He returns and explains that his wife's last moments were typical of her. "It was a deeply embedded part of Barbara's character that she would not have stood by and done nothing. She was engaged in living. She would not accept that things could be done to her without her doing something about it. She was passionate. She was brave. She was involved."

He remained in the office for several hours, telephoning friends and family to let them know Barbara was dead. "There was no point in trying to go home," he says. "The streets were jammed with people trying to move, and no one was moving. So I stayed here until about two o'clock."

Soon, Barbara Olson became the first victim of the attacks to be named on television. She was also the most famous person to die that day.

That afternoon, friends began to gather at the Olsons' house. Ken Starr, the independent counsel who nearly removed president Bill Clinton from office, manned the telephone. Among those who rang to offer their condolences were the two busiest men in America - Mr Bush, who called from Air Force One, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York.

Finally, at 1am, Olson went upstairs to bed. On his pillow he found a note his wife had left less than 20 hours earlier. "I love you," it said. "When you read this, I will be thinking of you and I will be back on Friday."

Olson compares her defiance at the end of her life with that of the heroes of Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. "Barbara didn't have as much warning, and I don't think she had as many resources," he says. "But it would have been entirely within her character to take action herself."

By killing Barbara Olson, the terrorists incurred the wrath of America, from the White House to the scores of thousands of ordinary people who turned her posthumously published The Final Days, about the controversial end of the Clinton presidency, into a best-seller.

During a recent visit to Florida, when Mr Bush was asked by schoolchildren in Orlando how he had felt on September 11, he told them: "I knew that when I got all of the facts that we were under attack, there would be hell to pay for attacking America." His use of the title of Barbara Olson's first book was no accident.

"9/11 has stiffened the resolve of people in this country, and Barbara was quintessentially American," says Olson. "She was Texan. She was a ballet dancer. She worked in the movie industry. She went to a Catholic college and to a Jewish law school. She was a lawyer. She worked as a government investigator, best-selling author, television commentator. And she was only 45. She was successful because of something about the culture of this country."

Suddenly, the Solicitor General, who has been slumped in his chair, sits bolt upright. "We are going to fight back," he says, deliberately. "We are not going to quit. We are not going to stop. We are not going to forget."


© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2002.

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