Politics & Policy

Bob Kerrey’s 9/11 Commission Fiasco

What really happened when the 9/11 commissioner left the White House.

Democratic 9/11 commissioner Bob Kerrey made an early departure from the commission’s long-anticipated session with President Bush and Vice President Cheney only to find himself waiting for what turned out to be a late, and very brief, meeting on Capitol Hill. Now, Kerrey says that if he had it do over again, he would not have left the White House in the first place.

Kerrey had scheduled a meeting at noon Thursday with New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, a member of the Appropriations Committee, at Domenici’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building (the two were to discuss an issue related to the New School, of which Kerrey is president). To make the meeting, Kerrey left the White House at about 11:40 A.M., missing the last hour of the commission’s questioning of Bush and Cheney.

But when Kerrey arrived at the Hart Building, he was told that Domenici was busy on the Senate floor, voting on a series of amendments. Noon came and went. Instead of meeting in the office, Kerrey went to an area just off the Senate floor, where, at about 12:30 P.M., he was finally able to have a quick word with Domenici.

In the end, Kerrey says, he would have done things differently. “If I had known that there were votes in the Senate at the time, and Sen. Domenici was not in his office, and I would not be able to see him until later, and I would only get 30 seconds or a minute with him, then yes, I would have stayed at the White House,” Kerrey told NRO.

Other than the general topic of the meeting–a matter affecting the New School–both Kerrey and Domenici’s office have declined to reveal any details of what the talk was about.

Kerrey says the meeting with Domenici, a former Senate colleague, was arranged by the Carmen Group, a Washington lobbying firm which handles matters for the New School. Kerrey says he originally canceled the Domenici meeting in order to be at the White House but then re-instated it when he was told that there would be time to do both. When the commission session stretched on, Kerrey says he felt he had to leave.

He has been surprised at the criticism his departure has prompted. “If I had known there would be this kind of public storm, I would not have left that [commission] meeting,” Kerrey says. “If I had this thing to do over again, I wouldn’t leave.”

Fellow Democratic commissioner Lee Hamilton also left the meeting with the president and vice president, but his departure has been the target of less criticism, apparently because Hamilton had made arrangements for his departure in advance. Hamilton was scheduled to be at a meeting with the prime minister of Canada at lunchtime Thursday, and a source close to the committee says Hamilton informed the White House of his plans before the meeting.

“Lee pointed out that he had a program that he had been working on for many months with the prime minister of Canada,” says the source. “The White House understood that and knew going in that he had to leave by a certain time.” In the end, the source continues, “the president turned out to be exceptionally generous with his time,” and Hamilton had to leave before the commission meeting was over.

No Republican commissioners left the meeting early.

Commission members of both parties had sought the Bush/Cheney meeting for months. The commission protested vigorously when the president originally intended to give the commission just an hour of his time. Bush later relented, and the session stretched to three hours.

Byron York is a former White House correspondent for National Review.

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