Governing During Threats To National Security
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee, in Washington. It's Wednesday, and it's time for the Political Junkie.
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PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.
VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?
SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
SENATOR LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.
SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Oops.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.
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HEADLEE: Earlier this week, bombs rocked the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three, injuring more than 170 others. NPR News is aware of developments in this case. They are developing, and we're working very hard to verify and confirm reports that are coming out of Boston right now. As soon as we get those details, we will get them to you.
Today also we understand that letters containing - or packages containing ricin were addressed to the president and Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, suspicious packages in the Russell and Hart Senate offices, office buildings, prompted capitol police to block off portions of office buildings on the Hill, though they have now given the all-clear there.
And in a few minutes, Jack Buechner, former Republican congressman from Missouri, will join us to talk about receiving threats as a congressman. But now we're going to take a step back from the developing news and look at the week in politics with our political junkie Ken Rudin, who joins us here in Studio 3A.
So let's begin, as usual, with a trivia question, right, Ken?
KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: We sure will. Thanks, Celeste. OK, well Anthony Weiner, you've heard of him?
HEADLEE: I have.
RUDIN: Yes, OK, because he's in all the papers. He's the former congressman from Queens who's seriously contemplating running for mayor of New York City this year. The question is: Who was the last member of the House or former member of the House to be elected mayor?
HEADLEE: OK, and if you think you know the answer...
RUDIN: I know the answer.
HEADLEE: Not you, I'm talking to the listeners again.
RUDIN: Oh them.
HEADLEE: If you haven't won the junkie trivia in the past six months, and you think you know the answer, give us a call, the number is 800-989-8255. The email address is email@example.com. The winner gets that fabulous political junkie T-shirt.
RUDIN: My God.
HEADLEE: And the brand-new no-prize button.
HEADLEE: All right, so Ken, obviously the Monday - the events on Monday in Boston were a terrible tragedy. That doesn't usually, tragedy or not, usually it's immediately turned to political advantage. Isn't that generally the case?
RUDIN: Well, it certainly wasn't the case after 9/11. There was a brief moment, and a horrifying moment but it was a brief moment, where Democrats and Republicans actually talked to each other, looked at each other and worked with each other in the aftermath of 9/11. And that didn't - it lasted somewhat, a short time, but it didn't last that long.
And then we saw in campaign, subsequent campaigns, people would use tragedies to their political advantage. We saw that in Georgia in 2002, for example, the race between Saxby Chambliss and Max Cleland. The Republicans called Max Cleland, he was soft on Osama bin Laden, he was not really truly patriotic, even though of course Max Cleland had lost three limbs and was a decorated war soldier. But because he voted against some kind of a Homeland Security - part of the Homeland Security bill, he was deemed unpatriotic.
The terrible tragedy in Tucson, when Gabby Giffords was shot, there was a time, I mean, in all fairness, Sarah Palin did release a target list of those in - those Democrats in crosshairs, you know, who voted against Obamacare. Now people in politics have been talking about targets for years, but a lot of people went after Sarah Palin, said she was responsible for this terrible tragedy.
HEADLEE: For this shooting that injured Gabby Giffords and killed others.
RUDIN: Gabby Giffords and killed others, exactly. So we've seen this before. But we'd like to think that Boston, the tragedy in Boston would not be political. The fact is that Yankee Stadium yesterday actually played a Boston Red Sox theme song during their third inning. And if anybody can get along...
HEADLEE: Two groups of fans that do not normally...
RUDIN: No, exactly, so if the Yankees and Red Sox can get together, the politicians should be able to, as well. But then there was some case, for example Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, the president said - the president called it a tragedy. Well, it's not a tragedy. It's a vile act of violence.
And then everybody was questioning why didn't the president call it terrorism in time and then sort of like the debate we had over Benghazi. And then there were two Democratic members of the House, Steny Hoyer, who is the Democratic whip, and Xavier Becerra, who is the chairman of the House Democratic caucus, implied in a sense that if we didn't have sequestration, it's hurting...
HEADLEE: Budget cuts.
RUDIN: Exactly, is hurting aid to - you know, for first-responders. So both sides regrettably...
HEADLEE: They were saying had it not been for sequestration, we would have been better prepared?
RUDIN: Well, they are saying that certainly that first-responders will be among those hurt in tragedies like this. In other words both sides regrettably take terrible tragedies, as we've seen in the previous tragedies, especially in Boston, and try to make politics out of it.
HEADLEE: We have some guesses from listeners on your trivia question. Do you want to take a couple?
RUDIN: Sure, why not. I mean, that's why I'm here, you know.
HEADLEE: All right, so the question, let me remind everyone, was Anthony Weiner is a former congressman, is thinking about running for mayor in New York City. Who was the last member of the House or former member of the House to be an elected mayor? And we have a guess here from Steve(ph) in Iowa. Steve, what's your guess?
STEVE: John Lindsay of New York.
RUDIN: John Lindsay is a very good guess. He was a member of Congress from the East Side of Manhattan, elected mayor in 1965, but he was not the most recent congressman to be elected mayor.
HEADLEE: OK, thank you very much, Steve.
STEVE: Thank you.
HEADLEE: All right, here's another one, Lalli(ph), I hope I'm pronouncing that right, in San Antonio, Texas.
LALLI: Hi, yeah, Rahm Emanuel?
RUDIN: Rahm Emanuel is a very, very good guess. He was of course a former Chicago congressman, White House chief of staff, who was elected mayor and still mayor of Chicago, not the most recent.
HEADLEE: Not the most recent. Thanks so much. And we have here a guess through email, Stephanie(ph) is writing in and guesses Bob Filner, mayor of San Diego.
RUDIN: That is the correct answer.
HEADLEE: Ding, ding, ding, ding.
RUDIN: They told you about the ding, ding, ding part? Yes, Bob Filner, a former congressman from San Diego, was elected mayor of San Diego I guess December of 2012, the most recent. Just prior to him was Rahm Emanuel, and just prior to him was Ron Dellums in Oakland.
HEADLEE: That was a tough one.
RUDIN: It was.
HEADLEE: That was a tough one, but that - Stephanie gets that fabulous...
RUDIN: Amazing T-shirt.
HEADLEE: Yeah, amazing T-shirt, hopefully fits properly, and the brand new no-prize button.
RUDIN: Yeah, I know.
HEADLEE: Yeah, exactly.
RUDIN: Stephanie is a very, very lucky woman, and...
HEADLEE: An amazingly lucky woman. All right, so we're doing Political Junkie. We're going to go back with Ken Rudin to talk about some of the news of the week. Were it not for Boston right now, probably one of the biggest stories would be guns, correct?
RUDIN: Well, guns is still a very, very big issue. Of course today is a very key day in the Senate because there will be eight or nine amendments to this gun...
HEADLEE: The extended background check.
RUDIN: Well that's the big one. That's the Toomey-Manchin compromise, basically, that extends background checks to include gun sales at gun shows and over the Internet and things like that. But there were still - you know, everybody was making such a big deal last week when 68 senators agreed to have the debate.
But that's all it was. It was an agreement to have the debate. It was no sign of how they may vote on final passage. And there are a lot of skittish Democrats, you know, many of them who are up in 2014, people like Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, many Democrats in red states, where the gun culture is prevalent, prevalent, are very nervous about how they'll vote.
So we don't know if we're going to have these kind of votes or not, whereas the Republicans have their own amendments. I mean first of all the Democrats have several amendments: the extended background check; the assault weapons ban, which nobody thinks will pass; limiting the magazine ammunition, size of the magazine.
HEADLEE: Size of the magazine.
RUDIN: But the Republicans have one, as well. John Cornyn of Texas has an amendment that basically says that somebody who is allowed to carry a concealed weapon in a state that allows it, other states should be allowed to respect that state's law. So both sides have amendments.
And of course the Democrats say if our side, if our, the Democratic side, is losing on these things, and the Republicans and the pro-gun folks start winning, they may even pull down the bill itself or at least vote to defeat it.
HEADLEE: Although, I mean, I think it's fair to say that people are getting a little pessimistic about the chances of real gun reform, any reform on either side of existing gun legislation. Is that relatively...
RUDIN: Well, in the fact that no - there has not been any kind of gun law passed since 1994, the assault weapons bill that went out of business after 10 years. But the fact that two pro-gun, moderate, conservative senators, Pat Toomey, the Republican of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the fact that they got together, tried to go forward to compromise is as close as we're going to probably get.
And of course in the wake of Sandy Hook, if we don't get anything out of today's votes, and the votes start at 4 p.m. Eastern Time, then we may be really at square zero again.
HEADLEE: All right, well, there's another thing that may have a chance, and that's immigration deal, and that's because of a bipartisan proposal, as well. We finally have the full Gang of Eight bill, which Marco Rubio has been touting. What are the chances for immigration?
RUDIN: Well, Marco Rubio is the key person. Of course there are a lot of Democrats who were ready to go with this much earlier. Rubio is being very cautious, and understandably so, because conservatives are looking at him very closely. He is Latino, he is from Florida...
HEADLEE: Looking at him as a possible presidential candidate.
RUDIN: Well exactly, 2016 is not far from his calculations. And except - it looks like that he's ready to sign on with this. It looks like the Gang of Eight are going to go along with this. Basically it's going to be, you know, you have to - if you're in the country 10 years, you have to pay a penalty of $2,000, you have to speak English, you have to have a job, and - which is a path to citizenship but not before further...
HEADLEE: You get a green card after 10 years and then possible citizenship after another three years.
RUDIN: Right, but none of that happens until this increased border security, and that's part of the deal, as well. And everybody seems to be signing off on this at least in the Senate. And of course the question with everything, with immigration as well as guns, is we don't know how the House will react.
And of course we keep hearing the word amnesty a lot from folks on the House side or opponents in the Senate. So we'll just have to wait and see what happens. But right now immigration reform or immigration overhaul looks more promising right now than gun overhaul, at least in the Senate.
HEADLEE: OK, so let's talk a little bit about where we began because we only have about a minute left before we have to take a break, about the chances for, say, for example, Anthony Weiner in New York. Polls show him second in the running.
RUDIN: Well yes, but, you know, but of course he certainly has...
HEADLEE: For Democrats.
RUDIN: Well, yes, I mean, he has voter identification. You know, when Gary Hart dropped out of the race, my political junkie column is all about this this week, but when Gary Hart dropped out of the race because of the sex scandal in '87, came back into the race, he was immediately the frontrunner because of course everybody knows who he was. But ultimately nobody voted for him, and that's the risk Anthony Weiner takes.
He wants to be mayor. He has $4 million to spend. He's very, very smart. But can voters forgive the famous tweets?
HEADLEE: All right, stay with us, Ken. Of course when we come back we'll get an update on the suspicious packages that were intercepted before delivery to President Obama and Senator Roger Wicker. Stay with us. Also things are continuing to develop quickly in the investigation of the bombings in Boston. We're expecting details in the coming hours from authorities. We'll bring them to you as soon as they are confirmed.
I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Stick with us.
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HEADLEE: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. It's Wednesday, that means political junkie Ken Rudin is here with me. And today the Secret Service continues to investigate the suspicious package that was sent to President Obama. Preliminary tests indicate it could contain the poison ricin.
Another letter sent to Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, also tested positive for ricin in early tests, according to the FBI. And earlier today, parts of congressional offices in Washington were temporarily blocked off after suspicious packages were found there.
So if you've worked in politics, we want to hear from you. Tell us about a time when your office handled a threat. The number is 800-989-8255. You can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. In a moment we'll speak with a former member of Congress about the threats Congress people face daily, I'm sure, and how that affects the work they do.
But first, NPR's Tamara Keith has been following this story and joins us from the Capitol. Tamara, the letter or package that was sent to the White House, it never made it to the building, the White House building, correct?
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: That's correct, and also the letter sent to Senator Wicker never made it to the Capitol Building. All mail is processed off-site, and it was in fact a letter that was addressed to the president, not a package. And the Secret Service said that it contained a suspicious substance.
But there are these remote mail screening facilities, much of this put into place after the anthrax scares after 9/11. So mail does not come directly into the Capitol complex at all. It goes into these remote facilities where, in the case of the letter to Senator Wicker, it was discovered and tested positive in a preliminary test for ricin, which is a poison, and then taken for further testing by the FBI, which is the same case with the White House letter.
HEADLEE: Well, let me stop you there. When you're talking about preliminary and further testing, what's the difference? Could you get a preliminary test that's positive for ricin and then a later test that's not?
KEITH: My understanding is that there are a lot of false positives, that, you know, it's sort of a field test, and then you would go to an actual lab and do a more sophisticated test that takes, according to the Capitol Police and the FBI, somewhere between 24 and 48 hours. So it's a more extensive and more likely to be accurate test.
HEADLEE: We're getting...
KEITH: So at this point we don't really truly know...
HEADLEE: If there's any ricin at all.
KEITH: It's possible that there isn't any at all. It's also possible that those preliminary tests were accurate.
HEADLEE: So we're also getting - you know, there's rumors flying everywhere. One thing we heard from Senator Carl Levin was that he says his office in Saginaw, Michigan, received a suspicious letter or package. Have you been able to confirm that?
KEITH: Well, all I've been able to confirm is that he, in fact, does say that his office received a suspicious letter and that they did what they're supposed to do with it, which is they called the authorities, and the letter is now being tested. It - we don't know yet if there was anything about it other than something that made it seem suspicious.
And then we also had these suspicious packages here at the Capitol.
HEADLEE: At the office buildings.
KEITH: Yes, at the Hart Office Building and the Russell Office Building. And in the Hart Office Building, where I was hanging out at the periphery, mostly getting yelled at whenever I peeked my head around the corner, they were keeping people in their offices, they were keeping the atrium empty, and they were doing investigations on the first and third floors, they said.
There were announcements going over the loudspeakers, and if anybody peered out of their office, they were immediately told in a firm voice to get back into their offices and hold in place.
HEADLEE: So we will continue to monitor developments and bring you updates as they happen. Thank you so much, NPR's Tamara Keith.
KEITH: Absolutely. Let me just say that those buildings were all clear.
HEADLEE: Right, exactly.
KEITH: Yes, we're fine now.
HEADLEE: With us from the Capitol, not holed up in an office somewhere, thanks so much Tamara.
KEITH: You're welcome.
HEADLEE: I want to very quickly mention what's been happening with Boston, as well, because we're continuing to monitor developments out of Boston on the case of the bombings there from Monday. Right now sources tell NPR no arrests have been made. We will continue to bring you updates as we get them.
But to continue with the discussion about the threats to Congress people and politicians, joining us now in Studio 3A is former Congressman Jack Buechner, a Republican. Buechner represented Missouri's 2nd District from 1987 to 1991. First of all, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
JACK BUECHNER: My pleasure.
HEADLEE: So you served in pre-9/11, fair to say a very different world in terms of threat assessment.
BUECHNER: Yeah, I was thinking today that the speaker of the House was probably Pollyanna. I mean, we really were in a different time. People picnicked on the lawn of the Capitol. Cars regularly drove in and out. Pizza delivery boys, and they were all boys, would come in with pizzas, and security would literally wave them through.
The Kaczynski bombings, the Unabomber, started to circulate about during this time, and so the sergeants of arms would give periodic, like, be careful about suspicious-looking packages. Well, that was down at the mail room. That wasn't in our office, except people regularly dropped envelopes off. I mean, lobbyists - and when I talk about that, I mean grassroots lobbyists - would come up with leave packages for you.
And, you know, I cannot remember a day when anybody seriously worried about the contents of a package other than words that somebody would threaten you.
HEADLEE: Nobody in your office or that you ever know of said we got a suspicious package today, or we're concerned about something we got?
BUECHNER: You know, again, I may have been oblivious to that, but I can tell you that I do not recall of any member of Congress at that time saying that they received a suspicious package. Does not mean that somebody didn't get one. I do not remember in four years getting one either at my district office or in my Washington office.
RUDIN: You know, Jack, Congressman, in addition to of course suspicious packages, you could be, as a member of Congress, as Gabby Giffords was, just appear at a shopping center and some person just lunges out with a gun. What security concerns did you have back in those days before there was electricity and TV and things like that?
BUECHNER: You know, I had the arrogance of being a pretty big guy and, you know, spending a lot of time on athletic fields. And I guess I had the belief that, well, I'm really not worried about it. I seriously was never worried about anybody pulling a gun or taking out a knife and stabbing me.
I can remember a couple of things when it was the airport expansion in my district was going on, and it was pretty hot discussion. I can remember the machinists' local that wanted TWA to be treated in a specific piece of legislation. And those were pretty hot meetings. And there was some chest-bumping.
But, you know, it was never - I cannot recall of a moment when I actually felt that my - I was physically in jeopardy.
RUDIN: Did members of Congress ever talk to you about personal fears? I mean, of course we - you know, even though it was pre-9/11, there were still assassinations. They were - there was Jonestown, there was Bobby Kennedy, there were people again out there with some crazy motives.
BUECHNER: Absolutely, but I think - you know, everybody talks about arrogance of elected officials - I think part of that was that we were bulletproof, that we were in a - who would - first of all, who would assassinate a member of Congress? I mean that was sort of the idea. But that's all changed.
HEADLEE: You know, I wonder when it changed for you, Congressman. We're speaking with Congressman Jack Buechner, who - a Republican represented Missouri's Second District. When did it change? Was it maybe the anthrax threats? Was it 9/11? Was it Gabby Giffords?
BUECHNER: I think 9/11, of course, raised the sensitivity of security to this level that perhaps during World War II there was a sensitivity to that because of saboteurs, and for that matter the Japanese population in California. But 9/11 I know changed things. At that time I was a lawyer working on Capitol Hill a lot, and you could see it.
Everybody was jolted, and then the people charged with protecting the members of Congress, everything changed there. You know, getting screenings for the people going into the galleries, and don't forget the history, there had been people actually pulled machine guns out and pistols in the galleries of the House and the - well, not in the Senate. They blew up part of the Senate. So there certainly was an awareness there, but again I don't think it was that acute.
HEADLEE: We want to put a call out to those of you listening, as well. If you're involved in politics, how have you dealt with threats as a member of politics? Go ahead, Ken.
RUDIN: I was just going to ask Jack also one thing. Tamara Keith alluded to this earlier. We do have this amazing security on Capitol Hill in the post-9/11, anthrax, and the mail is sorted far away from the Capitol. But a suspicious letter or a package to your congressional office in a - you know, you have several congressional offices. You obviously don't have that same kind of screening, security that you would have here at the Capitol.
BUECHNER: Nope, not in the least.
HEADLEE: Let me give everyone the number really quick. It's 800-989-8255. But what Ken's talking about is Senator Carl Levin just has said that he received something suspicious at his office.
RUDIN: In Saginaw.
HEADLEE: Yeah. In Saginaw, Michigan.
BUECHNER: Well, who knows what crank would decide to do that, to sort of pile on. But the issues of today are - I don't want to say that issues were not as blood-and-guts as they are today. But I think that the level of rancor that comes out of the constituencies are people that don't live in your district, but hate you for a position you're taking or that you're not taking, is exacerbated much more than it was back then. And I'm not talking about halcyon days, but there was - again, I use the term bulletproof as an idea that even though presidents have been assassinated, candidates for president have been assassinated, the Jim Jones episode, you know, those things all happened, but it was almost as if they had happened on a different planet.
HEADLEE: What about threats, when someone threatens your life? If you get a postcard that includes a threat, maybe you don't make it public. But at what point do you decide that it's serious enough to report it to a security detail?
BUECHNER: Well, of course, the admonition that you're given is that anything that threatens your - you or your family or your staff, for that matter, even the - I hate to use the term the institution, but, like, all of you, or something like that - you're supposed to turn it in immediately to the security...
HEADLEE: No matter what.
BUECHNER: No matter what. It's not your job to decide whether it's a loony toon on the other end. It's your job to give it to authorities who can find out.
HEADLEE: So did you then have to make a decision on whether or not to release something to the public or mention it publicly?
BUECHNER: Well, you know, what I would say to that is, is that if it said I'm going to kill you, I'm going to kill your youngest son, I'm going to take out the next meeting, somebody, that's, of course, a real red flag.
BUECHNER: If somebody says you'll regret this, you don't want to do this, that could just mean they're going to run against you in the next primary. So you have to be a little judicious about it. And, you know, I used to practice law, and I represented some people that were kind of on the margins, and I had more threats from them than I did from constituents, I guess.
HEADLEE: Well, we're going to take a call here really quick from Sue in Boise, Idaho. Our question today, Sue, is for people who've been involved in politics: How do you deal with threats? What about you?
SUE: You know, I haven't been involved in politics in some time, but I worked on Capitol Hill from '79 to '89, a much simpler time. And at that time, Capitol Hill police were patronage folks. And the worst we - the most threatening situation would be maybe someone with - I don't know, for lack of a better phrase - mental health issues coming in and wanting something sort of crazy. And so if you were seated at the receptionist desk, for whatever reason, in a member of Congress' office, every receptionist desk had a little button that you would press, and it was a direct line to the Capitol Hill police, and you were instructed just to say your books are ready in, whatever, room 424 Cannon. And then a policeman would come. But it was the simpler time.
HEADLEE: You worked - how - what position did you work in?
SUE: I was a legislative assistant for a member of Congress.
HEADLEE: So you - when you were sitting at that desk - let me get the picture in my mind here, Sue.
HEADLEE: You were sitting a desk, and you had, like, a red panic button?
SUE: Well, I wouldn't call it a panic button. It was a little button under the desk. And, you know, again, you never felt like you were in a situation where you would panic. But if you were uncomfortable for any reason - because, remember, all those offices were completely open.
SUE: You know, there was absolutely - you know, there was...
HEADLEE: There were no metal detectors, yeah.
SUE: ...a Capitol Hill cop at every door, but it was - they were almost more like greeters.
SUE: You know, what I mean?
BUECHNER: ...the youngest person in the office, in most cases.
HEADLEE: Yeah, that is true, the police.
SUE: Well, yeah. But what I'm saying is at the doors of the Cannon House Office Building, you know, there were Capitol Hill police personnel at every door, but they...
SUE: ...you know, there was no searching. There was no magnetometer.
SUE: And you were on a first-name basis with them.
HEADLEE: OK. That's - it's a great point. Sue in Boise, Idaho. It sounds like the consensus is that 9/11 changed a lot. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And we are talking about threats to politicians on Capitol Hill. Joining me is, of course, Political Junkie Ken Rudin and Jack Buechner, former Republican congressman. And we have a call here from Alabama. This is Sybil(ph) in Alabaster. Sybil, your experience with politics and threats.
SYBIL: Yeah. Back in the early '90s, my father had been on the city council in a small town in Florida. There had been some police who had falsified time records. He was the police liaison with the city council. He later took the position of city clerk. And the day before my wedding, they - he received a mail bomb. The girl in his office who, you know, (unintelligible) had gone through suspicious mail training, and it just didn't look right to her. So they, you know, called in the bomb squad and all that kind of stuff and detonated it.
HEADLEE: So no one was injured, Sybil.
SYBIL: No one was injured, no, no.
SYBIL: No one was injured. You know, the worst it would have done is - to say the worst - they said it was a smoke bomb, and for someone who had a heart condition, it could have been, you know, dangerous. And, of course, my father had a heart condition. So, you know, it was scary. It made for an interesting story to go with my wedding.
HEADLEE: And that's one thing. But did it change your father's view of politics?
SYBIL: You know, I think daddy just continued on. I think that it made us all a lot more aware of, you know, things that came in. A friend had given me a kind of photo album as a wedding gift, and just stuck it in a large manila envelope. She wasn't aware of everything that had gone on. And so when my mother saw that, she about freaked out. But, you know, I think it just heightened our awareness a whole about, you know, how deranged some people can be and how cautious we need to be.
HEADLEE: Thank you so much. That was Sybil, calling from Alabaster, Alabama. Ken?
RUDIN: You know, I was just thinking, speaking of Alabama, about a year ago, I was in Alabama giving a speech, and I was - I met with Morris Dees, who is the head of the Southern Poverty Law Center. And, you know, when Jack - Congressman Buechner was talking about, you know, the good old days, but people have been - people in public life, people involved in civil rights, things like that had been threatened for a long time. Morris Dees had bomb threats throughout his whole life. So I'm just wondering that, when you talk about the good old days, it's not just starting now. There are people who have been under gun, so to speak, under threats for a long, long time.
HEADLEE: Public service, especially high level public service...
RUDIN: Exactly. Exactly.
HEADLEE: ...has always been, to a certain extent, at risk, which is why we say thank you to all the people who devote themselves to public service. And I want to say thank you to Jack Buechner, former Republican congressman who represented Missouri's 2nd District from 1987 to 1991, joined us here in Studio 3A. Thank you so much, Congressman.
BUECHNER: My pleasure.
HEADLEE: Ken Rudin, our Political Junkie, is going to stay with us here in Studio 3A. When we come back, we'll switch gears and talk about how our political leaders govern during a crisis. Matt Higgins joins us, press secretary to Mayor Giuliani during the 9/11 attacks. Stay with us. I'm Celeste Headlee, and this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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HEADLEE: After Monday's bombing shattered the finish of the Boston Marathon, President Obama addressed the nation. He offered words of comfort to the grieving. For many, Monday's event brought back memories of earlier attacks on American soil and the response of political leaders at those times. So we want you think back and tell us about a memorable moment in which a political leader made a difference in a crisis where you live. Give us a call and tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. Or join the conversation through our website. Go to npr.org, and then just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Political Junkie Ken Rudin is still with me here in Studio 3A. And joining us now is Matt Higgins. He was in his mid-20s when he became press secretary for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. His job took on a whole new shape when two planes struck the World Trade Center buildings in September of 2001, and he joins us from his office in New York. Welcome to the program, Matt.
MATT HIGGINS: Thanks for having me.
HEADLEE: So right after the second plane struck, you organized a press conference a few blocks from the site. Tell us about those first very, very crucial moments following the attacks.
HIGGINS: Yeah. I think, you know, great leaders have great instincts, and Mayor Giuliani understood from those early moments how crucial it was to communicate to New Yorkers and to the country that, you know, government was intact. Obviously, the focus at that time was to - was on rescue and recovery, but his philosophy was always in times of crisis, the most important thing is to get out in front of the public and let them know that government is in charge, and that we're going to work through this.
And so there were actually a couple of different press conferences on the fly. The mayor was walking up, I believe, Church Street, and he did a phone interview with New York One shortly after the first tower collapsed. And then we were at the - we all kind of convened at a fire station, which is just burned in my head, this empty firehouse and everyone was assembling, including the fire commissioner, the police commissioner. We were on the phone with the vice president in one of the offices. And the mayor wanted to assemble the media outside to send another message.
HEADLEE: You know...
HIGGINS: And then, ultimately, we went to the police academy, and that was the first, you know, official sort of press conference.
HEADLEE: You know, let me take you back for just a moment. I want to play just an excerpt of President Bush responding to the 9/11 attacks. Take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.
HEADLEE: So, obviously, at the moment when something like this occurs, a political leader is responsible for not only getting out what information they can, but they also have to make sure the information they give out is correct, and they have to make people feel better. How do you balance all of those things?
HIGGINS: That's a great question, because in those early moments, there's also a tremendous amount of pressure being applied from reporters, from different constituencies, from all level of government. So you're taking inbound requests for more information, and the impulse could be to give away facts that eventually turned out not to be the case. And what that does is undermine your credibility. And when I was watching...
HEADLEE: Did we just lose Matt Higgins? We've been speaking with press secretary Matt Higgins. He was press secretary to Rudy Giuliani during the 9/11 attacks. But with me still in Studio 3A is political junkie Ken Rudin. Let me ask you the same question I just asked Matt, which is this balance that a leader has to achieve getting information out because having information comforts people, making sure that information is correct, and at the same time reassuring a very - sometimes panicked population.
RUDIN: Right. And that's exactly what President Bush and Mayor Giuliani did in the days after - the moments after 9/11. But there are sometimes - with the case of Boston, we don't know what's happening, and you hear very strange complaints. They don't know - why don't we know and why hasn't the president called it terrorism and why don't we know by now? And sometimes, look, it's painstaking work. I think we found out about Tim McVeigh in Oklahoma City by happenstance. I think it was almost like luck as opposed to somebody coming forward.
So a lot of times - I could be wrong about that, but I'm sure sometimes a lot of it is just, you know, you have to be patient. And in this era of instant information and instant demand for information, if we don't have a victim - I'm sorry. If we don't have a suspect immediately, something is going wrong.
HEADLEE: Matt, do we still have you?
HIGGINS: I'm here if you hear me.
HEADLEE: I can hear you now. So tell me about something you may have changed. Was there something you would have done differently looking back?
HIGGINS: Well, I just want to echo the point you just made, which is there is this tremendous amount of pressure in those early moments to put out information. And I think if you succumb to that pressure, especially in the immediate aftermath of an incident or an attack, inevitably you're going to put out more information that's wrong than right. And what that does is undermine confidence in government. So it's important to exercise restraint and err on the side of caution while also projecting calm and confidence that you have a plan, you know, to get to the bottom of it and you're focused on the recovery.
So in terms of what I would do differently, it's so easy to second guess. But taking a step back objectively, I think they've shown tremendous restraint especially in those early hours. I thought the governor did a great job managing expectations, saying, look, the area that's going to be cordoned off is going to be relatively large.
HEADLEE: You're talking about Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts?
HIGGINS: Yeah, and that it's going to get smaller over time. But, you know, it's not going to be easy to move around. And the best thing you can do is help us by, you know, staying inside. And I thought they did - they've done a great job.
HEADLEE: And for those of you out there listening, we're interested in knowing when if something - when an event has occurred, possibly a tragic event has occurred and a political leader said something that either helped you or didn't help you, when was the moment you remember of a political leader's words after a traumatic event? Give us a call at 800-989-8255 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
RUDIN: Matt, I was just thinking about - of course, about what Mayor Giuliani did after 9/11. Now, of course, that was a mayoral election year. I hate to bring politics in part of this, but that was a mayoral election year. But Giuliani was not up for election. There were term limits. What happens when somebody who's running for office in the middle of a tragedy and how - what do you do to make the public realize or understand that you're not trying to exploit this politically?
HIGGINS: I think you make sure that you express your condolences and your concern appropriately and then you get out of the way. I mean, that's the reality if you're not - and you're not in government. And at the time, it was - 9/11 was a primary.
RUDIN: Right. Primary day that day, right?
HIGGINS: Yeah. I was actually en route to meet the mayor, you know, at a polling site. So obviously, the entire world changed, you know, that morning. But I think the candidates at the time, they handled it appropriately. I mean, you know, you don't want to go anywhere near that. You want to just stay out of the way.
RUDIN: No. But I'm saying but if you're mayor and you have to - and you're running for office or you're up for office and you're responsible for calming the public, how do you - you just have to avoid, obviously, trying to - make it sound like you're playing politics.
HIGGINS: Right. You have to avoid the appearance of trying to, you know, maximize anything for yourself. In our case, obviously, mayor was not up for re-election, so we didn't contend with that issue. But I think you're absolutely right. You know, it's easy to be criticized. I think in a time of crisis, though, people understand the role of government and separate that out from the political role at the office.
HEADLEE: We're speaking with Matt Higgins who was press secretary to Rudy Giuliani during the 9/11 attacks. So, you know, Matt, there's always - the transition between the immediate aftermath when you're just trying to get what little information that you have out to that moment when you become sort of the consolation of your city, your county, whatever you were leading, right? So how do you choose those words of reassurance that are not necessarily information for people to absorb but words of comfort?
HIGGINS: Yeah, that's a great question. I remember the U.S., you know, moments that stick out in your mind, I mean, for me, and I was fairly young at the time, 26 years old, and I was experiencing the attack like everyone else. And I remember watching the mayor talk and he was - there was a lot of pressure to put out a casualty figure. And he kept saying it was way too early, but I think his response was whatever it is, it'll be more than any of us can bear, something to that effect. And it just struck the right tone. And I have to say there was - no one was giving the mayor advice about how to handle this. No one - I mean, of course, there are advice in other respects. But in terms of communicating, that was really all him and going on instinct.
And so, striking the emotional tone is very important from the very beginning. I think the police commissioner in Boston made a similar point that this attack does not show our weakness. It shows our strength by virtue of the immediate public response, and I think that's 100 percent true.
HEADLEE: I want to take a listen to short examples of other presidents speaking to the nation in times of crisis. First, this is 1986, President Reagan consoling the country after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven of its crew members.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
REAGAN: We will never forget them nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.
HEADLEE: And then here, almost 18 years ago to the day is President Clinton speaking in Oklahoma City following the tragic bombing of the federal building there.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life.
HEADLEE: Matt, I wonder if there are certain subjects you have to touch on. In other words, we will get justice. We will find peace. We will have resolution. Is that the kind of thing that you - a leader has to mention?
HIGGINS: I think the - no question you have to mention. You also want to ensure that you're being responsible and you're not obviously provoking at the wrong time when the focus should really be on rescue and recovery. So - but there is always a need and a sense that you want to be reassured government is going to pursue justice. I think they struck the right tone in Boston, as well. You know, I remember also going back to 9/11. President Bush took some criticism in those early days for not being as visible as some may have wanted. But sometimes the unscripted moments can be even more powerful.
And when President Bush came to ground zero - I believe it was Wednesday or Thursday morning - and he was going to the crowd and talking to first responders and he climbed the top of a pile with a firefighter and put his arm around him. And the crowd started chanting - shouting, you know, U.S.A. and someone said I can't hear you. And the president says, you know, well, I can hear you and soon all the terrorists will hear you too. I forget his exact words. But that was completely spontaneous, very powerful and very emotional.
HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we have a call here from Will(ph) in Louisville, Kentucky. Will, was there a moment when a leader said something that really struck you?
WILL: Well, what the gentleman just said was probably the most that struck me of anytime in my life, but almost as close to that is the most recent events that happened in Newtown, the terror that happened there. I was just really struck by President Obama as just genuine. I mean, every - such genuine tenderness and when they kept saying things like comforter-in-chief and, you know, you hear that as like a cliche.
Hey, look. I'm a 39-year-old guy - a single guy with no kids and I felt comforted. I mean, I was so horrified and I really felt confident and stronger and secure with every - almost every word he spoke. I felt better and for the first time in my life, I - maybe felt led. And I don't know what it's like to be led because I'm type A personality (unintelligible) most leading. But I felt good. I felt better and stronger.
HEADLEE: Better. OK. That's Will in Louisville, Kentucky. Thank you so much for your call. We have a call here also from Mike in Ames, Iowa. Mike, a moment when a leader said the right things?
MIKE: Well, two things: One, you've already mentioned the Challenger speech that President Reagan gave after the Challenger. And I must say that really touched me, and I was not and never have been a fan of President Reagan. And I think also, although I don't remember the exact words or timing, my impression was of a very calm, steady influence from President Johnson after the Kennedy assassination.
HEADLEE: Well, we have a bit of that. Hold on just a second, Mike. Let's listen to Lyndon Johnson after JFK's assassination.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: This is a sad time for all people.
HEADLEE: Just a snippet there. What about that was reassuring to you?
MIKE: Well, I don't - I was only 15 at the time and I don't remember it very clearly. I just remember the general feeling of the whole fact of a very smooth transition and his including, whether it was spontaneous or not, you know, his including Mrs. Kennedy and the - in that - in those moments when they got on the plane and flew to Washington. I also wanted to mention that I think I have an example of what might be the worst response of all time, and that was Alexander Haig's speech after a talk, after Ronald Reagan was shot.
HEADLEE: Yeah. Thank you so much. That's a phone call from Mike in Iowa.
RUDIN: You know, I was also thinking about, you know, things that have been said, but sometimes you don't even to say anything. And I grew up in New York City and I remember in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and cities around the country were exploding. John Lindsay, the mayor of New York at the time, made a point of walking out and being in the streets. And while a lot of - some of these streets were just exploding because of their frustration and just in the aftermath of the killing. Lindsay - I don't remember anything he said. But I just know that fact that he was out there, calmed the city that was very, very on edge.
HEADLEE: The fact that he wasn't showing himself to be not as concerned for his own personality.
HEADLEE: That's Ken Rudin, our Political Junkie. He joined us as he does here every week in Studio 3A. Thank you so much as always, Ken.
RUDIN: Thank you.
HEADLEE: And, Matt Higgins, has been with us, the press secretary for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani during the 9/11 attacks. He's now president of RSE Ventures and he spoke with us from his office in New York. Thank you so much for taking the time with us, Matt.
HIGGINS: Well, thanks for having me.
HEADLEE: We've been talking about political leaders in times of crisis, but this a moment also to give you updates. We're following developments out of Boston. NPR's been told by a senior law enforcement official no arrest has been made in the Boston Marathon bombing. The official says there is video of a man setting down a bag and leaving the scene. That does not necessarily make him a suspect. We need more than that. The official tells NPR. That's a direct quote. You can stay with NPR News for the latest on that story. We will bring you details as we have them and, of course, tune to ATC this afternoon as well and all day long. But at this point, no arrest has been made in the Boston Marathon bombing. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from Washington, D.C. I'm Celeste Headlee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.