A Picture on My Wall

There’s a picture on my wall of me with my former boss, Denny Hastert, surrounded by a group of reporters. I am on his left shoulder, listening in. As it turns out, the reporters were listening in, too. Hastert was talking to three ladies who weren’t registered lobbyists, who weren’t elected representatives, and weren’t reporters. They were three concerned citizens who had petitioned Congress to enact legislation that they thought would make America safer.

One of those ladies was Beverly Eckert. She was one of the ringleaders of the so-called “9/11 widows.” She badgered the Speaker and the Congress to allow a full investigation of what actually happened on one of the worst days in the nation’s history. Without Beverly, there probably wouldn’t have been a 9/11 Commission.

And when the commission made its recommendations, Beverly was there again, holding Congress’s feet to the fire, making certain that those recommendations became part of our legal code.

Beverly had no real background in intelligence policy. She didn’t work for the CIA. She had never worked in Congress. She also didn’t have a big budget or a big team of lobbyists or very many contacts. What she had was passion and a relentlessness born of fierce grief and anger at a system that seemed unresponsive.

Having worked for the Speaker, I knew that he wanted what was best for the country. He didn’t really love the 9/11 Commission, though. He was worried that the commission would recommend things that were unworkable or that there would be an effort to make the Bush administration a scapegoat. So he was initially resistant, not only to the commission itself, but to the 9/11 widows.

Eventually, he saw the passion exhibited by Beverly Eckert, and he relented. He detailed his chief of staff, Scott Palmer, to work on the legislation to implement the recommendations, and it was Palmer who helped drag it over the finish line, over the objections of many conservatives.

But without Beverly Eckert, the commission wouldn’t have happened. Without Beverly Eckert, the intelligence reforms would not have happened.

Beverly wasn’t much of an expert on the legislative process, nor did she know the ins and outs of the national security world, but she was an expert on what happened when the intelligence community failed to anticipate a major terrorist attack. She lost her husband because of such a breakdown.

The great thing about American democracy is that anybody can have a real impact on the legislative process, as long as they have a just cause, a passion for justice and a relentless spirit. Beverly Eckert had all of that and more.

She died the other day in a plane crash in Buffalo. But her passion and her example will never die. She will always be remembered as the widow who made Washington change. She did what she thought was right and she did it well.



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