Terrorism silences a voice for conservatism, a `fighter'

Barbara K. Olson noted for TV commentaries, criticism of Clintons

Terrorism Strikes America

Washington

September 13, 2001|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In trying to comfort a grieving nation Tuesday night, President Bush described the victims of the deadly terrorist attack as "moms and dads, friends and neighbors."

Hours before he delivered his televised address, Bush called the husband of a victim whom the president himself knew as a friend: Barbara K. Olson.

The former federal prosecutor, who was among the passengers aboard the hijacked jetliner that crashed into the Pentagon, had become well-known in recent years as a conservative TV pundit and ferocious Clinton critic.

She was also half of one of the GOP's favorite power couples, married for the last five years to Theodore B. Olson, the freshly minted U.S. solicitor general who successfully argued Bush's case in last year's election showdown before the Supreme Court.

"They were a magic couple," says CNN reporter Tim O'Brien, a family friend.

They were also a couple drawn to political disputes. And the scene at their Great Falls, Va., home Tuesday night, where such polarizing figures as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr came to grieve with the shell-shocked Mr. Olson, hinted at the fierce political battles the couple had waged together.

"She was a charming, beautiful, brilliant fighter," said Starr, who spent yesterday at the Olson home.

Starr said Mr. Olson, who was confirmed as solicitor general last spring after a congressional battle that focused on his partisan, anti-Clinton activities, was trying to be strong in the face of his personal tragedy, "but taking it very hard."

Like other relatives who received calls from doomed passengers in flight, Mr. Olson had brief phone conversations with his wife in the frenetic final minutes of her life aboard American Airlines Flight 77 after it departed from Washington Dulles International Airport.

As Mrs. Olson and fellow passengers were ordered to the back of the Boeing 757 by hijackers, she called her husband at his Justice Department office on her cell phone, according to his account to several friends.

In her first call, she told Mr. Olson that the plane was being hijacked by men armed with knives and box cutters.

The call was abruptly cut off, and Mr. Olson immediately called the Justice Department's command center.

Minutes later, his wife called again. This time, she described how the pilot and 58 passengers had been forced to the back of the plane. The two also exchanged private words. And Mr. Olson, who knew of the attacks on the World Trade Center by the time of his wife's calls, decided to inform her of those hijackings to make clear the danger she and fellow passengers were in.

Her last words to him were: "What should I tell the pilot?"

O'Brien said yesterday that Mr. Olson was glad he had had a chance to say good-bye to his wife. But, he added, "I think he had second thoughts about telling her about the World Trade Center bombings."

He said Mrs. Olson, who was headed to a media and business conference in Los Angeles, had originally planned to leave Monday. But since Tuesday was her husband's 61st birthday, she decided to delay her trip to spend Monday evening with him.

Mrs. Olson, 45, who worked as a lawyer for the House committee investigating the White House travel office firings in 1995 and 1996, became prominent during the Clinton impeachment hearings as a TV commentator who could be counted on to hurl scathing attacks at both the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In her 1999 book, Hell To Pay, a sharp critique of the then-first lady, Olson described Mrs. Clinton as "angry, bitter, obsessive and even dangerous to the health of American politics."

Olson's caustic language earned her critics and admirers. "In a town that is not big on candor, she was wonderfully, admirably frank," Starr said. "She was not a student of what is popular. That would not matter to her."

This summer, she caused a stir when, in an interview with a British newspaper, she referred to former President Bill Clinton's late mother, Virginia Kelley, as "a barfly who gets used by men." She later apologized, saying her choice of words was "very unfortunate."

In recent months, Olson had been a regular on CNN's Larry King Live, commenting on such political disputes as Democratic Rep. Gary Condit's relationship with missing Washington intern Chandra Levy.

Olson was often paired with Democratic lawyer Mark Geragos, who said yesterday: "As much as we used to argue at the top of our lungs, I loved the fact that she always had a smile on her face. I will miss her tremendously."

As to the depth of her conservative ideology, Starr pointed out that the couple's dogs are named Maggie and Reagan (after Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan).

"You get the idea," Starr said.

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