Before September 11, 2001, the War of 1812 is likely the last time that the U.S. Capitol was vacant. Twenty years ago, David Dreier ’75, Chairman of the House Rules Committee was the last person to leave the building following two terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City. He and a Capitol police officer locked the door on the East Front of that citadel of democracy.
In a recent interview, Dreier reflected on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11.
Where were you and what were you doing when the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon occurred?
In an attempt to, sort of, stay on California time, I rarely accepted 7 a.m. (4 a.m. PST) breakfast meetings. That day, however, I agreed to address the California Bankers Association at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel. After discussing the California economy, Federal Reserve policy and more, I headed back to my office just above the House Chamber. Little did I know that this would be the last time that any car could enter the completely open Capitol complex. By the end of that day, the building was surrounded by huge dump trucks. That was just the beginning of security which sadly limits public access to the People’s House. That morning when I arrived in my office, my assistant called telling me to turn on the television. I wished her a happy birthday (I’ll be doing so this year, as always) as we watched in horror witnessing the second plane hit the World Trade Center. While the Capitol was emptied, I remained convinced that the massive dome above me would stand forever. After the Pentagon was hit, I stepped into the empty hallway. I’ll never forget Capitol Police Officer Rudy saying, “Mr. Chairman, there’s a plane headed right toward this structure.” We now know that that was United Flight 93 that heroic passengers and crew crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. As he locked the door, Rudy looked to me and said: “You’re the last person to leave this building.”
Ironically, I was hosting a small lunch for the majority members of the Rules Committee with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. My staff was talking with Rumsfeld’s office just as the plane hit the Pentagon.
Later that afternoon Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate stood on the East Front steps and sang “God Bless America.”
How important was bipartisan cooperation immediately after the attacks?
The most tragic day in modern U.S. history brought us together. Following his very emotional address to the Congress, Republican President George W. Bush gave the Senate’s top Democrat a kiss on the cheek. That began an important stretch of bipartisan resolve. I hope and pray that our nation’s leaders can get back to that sense of comity.
You were still in office on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. How did you spend that day?
I went to the ceremony in that field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania to thank the families whose loved ones brought down Flight 93. Their actions saved the U.S. Capitol and those of us who were in it.
You were responsible for post-9/11 legislation. What are you most proud of?
In 1994 when my party won the majority, I was tasked with overhauling the committee structure dramatically reducing the number of committees and subcommittees. The September 11th attacks forced me to reverse course establishing the cabinet level Homeland Security Department and a new standing committee in Congress to oversee it. Jurisdictional struggles among committees in Washington are not for the fainthearted. Additionally, as we fashioned the Patriot Act, over the opposition of President Bush and Rules Committee vice chairman Porter Goss who later became CIA Director, I insisted that we include a “sunset“ provision because we were legislating through the prism of 9/11. I argued that we needed better perspective. As one looks at the changes that have been made to the Patriot Act, I’m pleased to have prevailed in that debate.
Do you miss politics?
It was an amazing honor but I thank God that I chose to, after 32 years, leave the Congress when I did. As I learned in my CMC Gov 20 class, James Madison said that you should serve and then go home and live with the laws that have been passed. I have not set foot in the Capitol since I left eight years ago. I’ve gotten into the media business among other things. I’m now building a memorial in Washington. D.C. for fallen journalists. One of our Tribune newspapers (The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland) was the site of the deadliest assault against journalists in U.S. history. In 2018, a gunman killed five of my colleagues.
You launched the Dreier Roundtable at CMC to inspire public service. This year, you established the Dreier Roundtable Civility Award. Tell us about it.
Leaving Washington has allowed me to get more engaged at CMC. One of President Chodosh’s first initiatives was to launch the Dreier Roundtable. We want to inspire students to consider public service. Professors Jack Pitney, Terril Jones and our newest addition Michael Fortner are doing lots of interesting things. Sadly, today, civil discourse is the exception rather than the rule. We need to recognize public servants who engage in rigorous debate while understanding that their political adversary is not their enemy. On September 22nd, former Governor Steve Bullock ‘88 P’24 will be the first recipient of the annual Dreier Roundtable Civility Award. Following the presentation, Steve and I will have a Jack Pitney-moderated bipartisan discussion on the future of the two political parties. On October 20th Professor Fortner will have an Oxford style debate on the future of policing. We will continue with our Pitney/Jones Op-ed writing contest. It’s going to be so good to be back on campus.