28 March 2017

Beverly Eckert's voice, sometimes hoarse from overwork, was always heard

Beverly Eckert was many things. After 9/11 she became an activist, an organizer, a leader, a spokesperson, a lobbyist, a builder of memorials and a conscience for the country. Sometimes her audience was worldwide, televised and spread through all manner of other media. Other times her message was delivered one-on-one.

In September 2004, Beverly was in Washington, DC to lobbying on behalf of intelligence reform bills that grew out of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. She shared a taxi with a stranger during the visit, and she told him about her work, her voice hoarse from all the speaking she was doing. A day later, the stranger sent Beverly an email.

Last night we just met in a shared cab in DC. You are the first victim of 911 that I have ever met. Living in Seattle and being untouched by that horrible day insulated me from the pain you have suffered and prevented me from understanding the urgency you feel about putting changes in place as soon as possible.
I am very sorry for your loss and grateful for the effort you are putting forth the make this country safer for me and my family. Just wanted to say thanks... Godspeed. (And give that voice a rest!!!)

For many Americans, 9/11 was not of immediate concern, the need for reforms an abstraction. Beverly and the other family members made the tragedy real. Their message resonated around the world, and it made a difference in the end.

24 March 2017

When the 'best among us' chose the heroic route: 9/11 family members get a big 'Thank you'

There was a sense of accomplishment and relief after the 9/11 Commission's final report was released on July 22, 2004 to the world, but Beverly Eckert and the other family members did not take time to rest. Their work was only half done until the commission's recommendations were adopted.

So they immediately set their sights on this next goal.

This involved the tough task of convincing members of Congress to formulate laws and pass them. On August 3, 2004, Beverly, Sally Regenhard and Robin Wiener testified before the House Government Reform Committee, adding their passionate and firm voices to the call for widespread changes. Many Americans viewed the hearing on television and were moved by the words of the family members. Here's an email from one woman from New York City. Her sense of disillusionment with politicians rings true even today. But her gratitude shines through.

Dear wonderful ladies,
I have lost so much faith in this country, this city, and those who are in power. I watched the DNC [Democratic National Convention] and that gave me a small amount of hope as I think that Kerry and Edwards are decent, thoughtful and intelligent men. But, my real hope for this country came when I watched your testimony before the committee. 
I have long been in awe of all of the family members and their ability to turn horror to good, but today I saw that the members of Congress see you as the only hope to get this country going in the right direction. What an awesome responsibility to have placed upon you, but I know that you are equal to these challenges.
When Ms. Eckert said to the committee that this was their hour to take a place in history and to do the right thing, I was wondering if the three of you (and the other family members) were aware that this was something that you did long ago. You chose the heroic route and you have traveled it with courage and integrity and love -- for your loved ones who so needlessly were lost and for your country and for people like me that just need to know that there is something left in the world that is right, true and full of integrity (without bulshit).
I hope that God will bless you and grace you in all that you do. I hope that you find some relief from your grief, although I know how hard that is. I was sobbing as I witnessed your pain and courage. I hope that you know that you represent the good and decent part of this nation -- you really are the best among us. Thank You.

22 March 2017

On a roll with the writing and research of No Truer Hearts, then..

You never know what you will find as you are doing the donkey work of research. Even though it involves digging for sources and reading just one page at a time, it is heavy lifting, believe me. You end up going through thousands and thousands of pages -- articles, letters, reports, statements, emails -- most of them dull and useless to your project. Dead weight piled high on your desk.

Then you strike gold.

It may be a quote that perfectly captures a moment in time. Or you might stumble across a fact no one in the world has ever published. The nuggets come rarely, but come they do, which is what keeps you going. These are the building blocks for your story. And you keep on slogging because of those unexpected jolts, the way that the words on a piece of paper can make you catch your breath in shock, chuckle quietly or send you searching for a tissue to wipe the tears from your eyes.

My eyes are dry now, but I had to stand up a few minutes ago from my current session of donkey work. It is March 22, 2017 and I am poring over the boxes of paper that Beverly Eckert had gathered to highlight some of her struggles to make the country safer after 9/11. These papers mostly deal with her work with other family members on the 9/11 Commission. They chronicle the long and difficult struggle to establish the commission, make sure its work was thorough and honest, and that its recommendations would change the government so that another attack would not leave in its wake another group of grieving family members like them.

Page after page after page. Then I pick up document 95. (Beverly had numbered the documents with colored Post-its.) It is an article I’d written long ago, in 2004, about the commission hearing where I first met Beverly, where our collaboration began. The article describes the hearing at which counter terrorism official Richard Clarke began his testimony dramatically by apologizing to the family members. “Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you.”

It gives me goosebumps to go back to that moment. And I think that a big reason that Beverly agreed to allow me to tell her story was that article. I think I captured an emotional turning point for the family members that most journalists missed. A couple of days ago, I found footage of the hearing on C-Span and watched the first few minutes, hoping to gather new insights after all these years. And sure enough, there was Beverly, in the second row behind Clark. And just after he apologized the camera panning, but it’s possible to see her right hand rising to her face -- wiping a tear? covering her mouth? Even in the fuzzy pixels it’s clear to see she was moved.

As soon as the hearing was gaveled to a close, family members rushed up to Clark, something that never happened with other witnesses. Catharsis. Beverly was second to grab his hand firmly and shake it. Afterword, she told me that she said to him: “I forgive you.”

In my article, I wrote that the family members had been craving honesty, openness and accountability from the hearings, and “Clarke was the one who gave this simple gift to them.”
What set me off though, what had me blowing my nose and wiping my eyes, was the tiny notation at the top of the printout of the article, in Beverly’s unmistakable crabbed handwriting: “A simple gift.”