WASHINGTON - Laughs, boos and applause created an off-camera soundtrack to the Sept. 11 commission hearing yesterday. Much of the noise came from relatives of victims of the attack, who made up about half the audience when National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testified about her actions before the terrorist strike.
Rice's voice was firm and confident throughout most of the testimony - although it wavered during acrimonious exchanges with former Sen. Bob Kerrey, whose 10-minute portion of the hearing stirred the greatest passions.
At one point, the Nebraska Democrat asked his supporters to refrain from clapping. His request did not prevent people from booing him when he instructed Rice not to "filibuster" him by giving lengthy answers.
Even other panel members were struck by Kerrey's questions. Former Sen. Slade Gorton, a Washington Republican, grinned at some exchanges. Kerrey got so wrapped up that he seemed to forget whom he was addressing. "Dr. Clarke, Dr. Clarke," he shouted, an apparent reference to Rice's former counterterrorism chief and Bush critic Richard A. Clarke.
"I don't think I look like Dick Clarke," Rice retorted.
Some family members were not amused. "I think she really danced around the issues," said Mary Fetchet, whose son Bradley, 24, died when terrorists slammed a plane into the second World Trade Center tower.
"She gave very vague responses," Fetchet said. "Questions that she didn't want to answer, she didn't answer."
Others supported Rice. "I hope she brings the commission back on track," said Debra Burlingame of Westchester, N.Y. Her brother, Charles Burlingame, was a pilot on American Airlines Flight 77, which struck the Pentagon. "It's veered off on a political track."
"The Bush administration was and is doing its job," she said.
Burlingame clapped occasionally when Rice had particularly good zingers. After the hearing, Rice shook hands and embraced some of the family members.
But aside from a few flash points in the hearings, audience members - at least those in the back - seemed to get weary in the warm room.
Approaching noon, Judie Tucker of Kensington - who awoke at 4 a.m. to secure a seat in the hearing room - leaned her head back and closed her eyes for a few moments. Another spectator - Michelle Brewer from Los Angeles - got out her cellular telephone and played a few games of solitaire.
Wire services contributed to this report.