In Remembrance of Barbara K. Olson.

AuthorOlson, Theodore B.
PositionFederalist Society member, September 11th victim - Barbara Olson Memorial Lecture

It is a great, great privilege to be a part of The Federalist Society and to be participating in the Barbara Olson Memorial Lecture.

On a clear and sunny September 11, twenty years ago, the world we had been living in crumbled and time seemed to come to a stop. Unlike December 7, 1941, when the full force of Japan's Air Force launched a surprise attack on a faraway Navy base, this time a mere nineteen individual zealots armed with hate, and with little more than box cutters, executed a massive, coordinated, and crippling attack on our people, our government, and our institutions. (1) They exploded hijacked commercial airliners packed with civilian passengers into America's commercial base in New York City and the nerve center of our defense establishment at the Pentagon a few miles from here. Had it not been for the towering heroics of a few brave passengers, one of their hijacked planes would likely have hit the Capitol and killed hundreds of members of Congress. (2) Thou sands of individuals on those flights and occupying those structures were murdered, maimed, and horribly burned that day. (3) New York's commercial center and the command-center of our national defense were reduced in a single morning to smoking rubble. Wrenched abruptly from our complacent, comfortable bubbles, we came face-to-face that day with a vulnerable, fragile, and defenseless future, not from an attack by a warring nation, but from a tiny collection of determined fanatics. The gut-punch reality was hard to accept, but we had to: the world was populated by thousands more like them, similarly motivated and equally capable of horrible devastations, with nothing to lose. (4)

One of our own, Federalist Barbara Bracher Olson, was one of the victims that day as she headed for Los Angeles on American Airlines Flight 77. (5) The terrorists could not have selected a more quintessential American victim. She was a Texan Catholic who had put herself through a predominantly Jewish law school in the heart of New York City. She declined a lucrative job at a prominent New York law firm to come to Washington in order to fulfill her longstanding ambition to be at the center of the nation's political world.

The Federalist Society was a dream come true for Barbara. She loved the rough and tumble of robust debate. Bursting with ideas, energy, passion, and enthusiasm, she persuaded the Dean of her pervasively liberal law school to allow her to form the first Federalist Society chapter at Cardozo Law School. And immediately after law school, she thrust herself into Washington life becoming--in rapid succession--a lawyer in private practice, an Assistant United States Attorney, a top congressional investigator, Deputy Solicitor of the House of Representatives, general counsel for the Senate Whip, author of two best-selling books about the Clintons (not favorable, I must say), and a regular and remarkably successful political and legal commentator on national television. (6)

Barbara saw, in the Federalist Society, a reflection of herself. She was a passionate believer in individual liberty, private enterprise, and limited government. She had an insatiable appetite for ideas, debate, and intellectual jousting. Barbara enjoyed mixing it up on virtually any subject, and she was very, very good at it. She was outspoken, articulate, and--it must be said--brash. She could and would take on anyone, in any venue, on any issue, with little or no advanced notice. She was quick and had a rapier-like wit. I told her once that some people thought she was opinionated. She thought that was a great compliment. Of course she had opinions; she had very little time for anyone who didn't have opinions. But she debated with passion, not anger--never mean-spirited or unkind. She delivered her thrust with a flip of her long blonde hair and a mischievous and contagiously radiant smile. Her adversaries liked and respected her, but feared her at the same time.

Barbara was a fighter until the very moment when the terrorists extinguished her life. She somehow managed to reach out to me by phone from her doomed flight as it was being hijacked. Knowing, because I told her--I had to--that two other hijacked planes had been flown into the World Trade Center Towers in New York, she sought in those last moments advice as to how she could save herself and her fellow passengers. Had she been on that plane in Pennsylvania, I believe with all my heart that she would have joined those brave souls who gave their lives to take that plane down rather than letting it continue to fly into the heart of Washington.

Barbara loved being a part of the Federalist Society, the debates, the people, your energy, your principles, and, of course, your convictions. You populated and enlivened the world of ideas, and placed your opinions, arguments, and contentions on the line.

As Gene said, Barbara co-hosted with me summer gatherings of student Federalists in our backyard every year. Indeed, the concept was originally her idea. We started in 1990 or '91 with a few summer students, Washington lawyers, and a few judges. She sought to create networks and mentorships for young Federalists. I think our first event involved something like thirty people. By the time Barbara was murdered, the crowds had come to exceed 500 in our backyard, and it kept growing and growing until Gene finally put a stop to that and moved the event to a more convenient and inexpensive venue: the Supreme Court. Those backyard events for these young students included lawyers and judges and people from Washington, luminaries such as Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, Nino Scalia, David Sentelle, Larry Silberman, Dick Leon, Steve Williams, Doug Ginsburg, Danny Boggs, Spence Abraham, Sam Alito, Chuck Cooper, Paul Clement, Boyden Gray, Lee Liberman Otis, Ray Randolph, Lillian BeVier--the list goes on and on. I cannot forget the thrill in your young faces when you came face-to-face with Bob Bork or Clarence Thomas or Nino Scalia. To this day, I encounter lawyers from all over the country, including members of Congress, members of the Cabinet, high-level public officials, and prominent lawyers who attended those summer parties as young students. They can't wait to tell me what an inspiration that afternoon was for them. Many of you are here tonight. This is just a part of Barbara's legacy.

This speech is called the Barbara K. Olson Memorial Lecture. Although I never really cared for the term "lecture." It sounds too much like a colonoscopy or any recent speech by President Biden. So I prefer to think of this as a remembrance.

In preparing for this evening, I thought I might try to channel Barbara and what she might think and say about the state of politics and society in America today had her life not been so brutally ended on September 11. I have no doubt that she would have had a lot to say to us, so I will try to limit these imaginary insights to just four subjects.

First, America's stature and standing in the world and in the hearts of its people. Barbara, like her fellow Texans, loved this country and was proud to be an American. She believed in an America that stood tall; was respected by its citizens, allies, and other nations; feared by its enemies; abided by its commitments; and protected the lives and rights of its people--the America that gave birth to the individuals about whom Tom Brokaw coined the term "the greatest generation."

After 9/11, America came together and demonstrated its unity, resolve and resilience. We proved to one another, and to the world, that we could not be defeated by terrorism, however horrific and devastating the attack might be. President Bush and Vice President Cheney joined in inspiring the American people to rebuild our transportation industry, our economy, our defenses, and our united spirit. We mobilized our forces to attack Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. (7) We vowed never to forget and never to forgive the brutal savages that sheltered terrorists, spawned terrorism, enslaved and debased their own people--particularly women--and wantonly took the lives and futures of thousands of Americans.

Barbara would have been proud of what we as a country accomplished, particularly in Afghanistan, in isolating and punishing the Taliban. (8) She was a fierce advocate for the rights of the oppressed and disadvantaged, helping to form, among other things, the Independent Women's Forum, to assist and advance the voices of conservative women in this country, so that in future controversies, there would be a conservative voice when liberal women came forward to claim to speak for all the women in America. (9) And, even as a fledgling attorney, when lawyers of the...

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