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.”

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