In the past three years, Mary Fetchet and Carol Ashley have outmaneuvered the president and vice president of the United States, the national security adviser, the speaker of the House, and chairmen of congressional committees.
Not bad for a social worker from Connecticut and a retired schoolteacher from Long Island.
Yesterday, as the Senate gave final passage to the broad intelligence reform bill, high officials lined up like so many sycophants to credit Fetchet and Ashley -- both mothers of Sept. 11 victims -- for the legislative triumph. In the gilded Lyndon B. Johnson Room off the Senate floor, the Senate leaders, the legislation sponsors, and members of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks filed past the two women for a hug and a mug for the cameras.
"Welcome to our world," said Fetchet, who was anxious to catch a 6:30 flight out of Washington so she would not miss her son's hockey game.
It is no exaggeration to say that yesterday's reorganization of the nation's intelligence structure would not have happened without Fetchet, Ashley and the 10 other self-appointed representatives of Sept. 11 victims' relatives who formed the Family Steering Committee. Though they started out with little understanding of politics or national security, and they did not truly represent the thousands of victims' relatives (in fact, many other relatives opposed the legislation), they used the moral authority they earned from their losses -- invoked freely in vigils, at news conferences and in the lobbies of Congress -- to shame the government into action.
"Would we be here except for those two? I don't think so," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), one of the legislation's sponsors, said after thanking Fetchet and Ashley. "It was impossible for a member of Congress to face the family members and say they wouldn't do something."
"I agree," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the co-sponsor. "They had the moral conviction."
The family members' public complaints pressured President Bush to drop his initial opposition to a Sept. 11 commission and his subsequent reluctance to meet with all 12 commission members and to share with the panel his most sensitive intelligence briefings and the testimony of White House officials. Loud criticism from the family members also moved opponents on the Hill to retreat from efforts to curb the commission's budget and deadline. In recent weeks, the family members scolded holdouts until the legislation passed.
"President Bush must use his political capital to overrule the obstructionists and garner support from the House Republicans," Fetchet said at a news conference Monday. "In the memory of the 3,000 precious lives lost on September 11th, we the families will continue our mission of making our country safer. We hope our government does the same."
That is pretty sophisticated rhetoric for a woman who had no political or public-speaking background before she came to Washington in 2002 to speak at a rally in support of forming a Sept. 11 commission.
"It was like 'The Twilight Zone,' " she said. "I didn't know who's a senator or who's a congressman." She was baffled when a strange man presented her with his business card (it turned out to be Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who was chairman of the intelligence committee) and when another stranger hugged her (that was Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who was the House Democratic leader).
Now, congressional aides drive Fetchet and Ashley about town and carry their luggage. The women take calls on their cell phones from prominent officials and call them by first name ("Richard, I always wanted to call you Ben," Fetchet told Sept. 11 commission member Richard Ben-Veniste). They are now recognized in Capitol elevators and know when a bill is "engrossed" or when the Senate has "cloture."
Equal parts Rosa Parks and Frank Capra's Mr. Smith, Fetchet and Ashley are as surprised as anybody that they became the de facto representatives of the 10,000 relatives. No vote was held; the 11 women and one man on their steering committee merely worked harder than the others, giving up their old lives and spending a good chunk of the past three years living out of the Churchill Hotel in Dupont Circle. Ashley used the life insurance payout for her daughter, who was killed in the terrorist attacks, to cover her travel expenses.
'Status quo isn't working'
Said Fetchet: "I question myself every day: How did I end up in this role?" The question makes her uncomfortable, but nobody can question her credentials: She has been notified four times that some of her son's remains had been discovered. "The last was two months ago," she said.
Though schooled in national intelligence matters over the past three years, neither woman pretends to be an expert. "We're not making recommendations; we're endorsing the commission's recommendations," Fetchet said. As with all such reforms, there's the possibility that the changes will worsen the problem rather than fix it, but that possibility does not worry the two. "What we know is the status quo isn't working," Fetchet said.
Early on, commission members and lawmakers learned the political utility of the Sept. 11 family members. While pushing for passage in the House in recent weeks, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) let them use her office as their headquarters. "I really do not believe we'd have the bill without them," she said yesterday.
After the panel issued its report, commissioners invited the family members to a private meeting and urged them to join a campaign to enact the recommendations. The result worked so well that commissioner and former congressman Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.) did not hesitate when asked what advice he would give Bush to get a Social Security reform through Congress. "Hire the 9/11 families," he said.