Barbara Olson
By Victoria Toensing

“This is the happiest day of my life.”  The beaming speaker was Barbara Olson.  It was July 11, 2001 and her infectious smile permeated the room of friends joining her in celebrating husband Ted Olson’s swearing-in as United States Solicitor General, the “10th Justice.”   No matter that Ted’s dream job of representing the United States before the U.S. Supreme Court meant a salary a fraction of that of his successful legal practice.  If Ted wanted it, so did Barbara, maybe even more so.

Two months later the same friends gathered at the Olson’s Virginia country home to mourn and to comfort Ted because Barbara had been on the American Airlines jet that slammed into the Pentagon just hours before.  Her last words were to Ted, reaching him via an airplane phone through the Justice Command center, telling him about the hijacking and asking what she should “tell the pilot to do.”  Barbara was always a doer, so tenacious and successful at any project she took on, that none of us would have been surprised if she had marched through the double doors that night, grinning mischievously and pointing with her long red fingernails to her stiletto heels, announcing that she had just “kicked the terrorists’ butts.”  After all, she had reached Ted by talking the operator into accepting a collect call, a feat unheard of in Justice Department history.

In October 2001, Barbara’s book “The Final Days,” which chronicled the last months of the Clinton administration, was published.  I did her book tour with her long time friend Barbara Comstock but claim no credit for it becoming a New York Times best seller.  That success was due to the many fans who had watched this articulate legal commentator punch hard with her strongly stated principles that were always softened through the aura of that luscious smile. 

During the tour we told and heard Barbara stories that reflected her multiple facets:  the ballerina who became the thoughtful lawyer, the fierce TV debater who would laugh with her adversary as they walked off the set, the prosecutor whose hard-nose image belied a sensitive soul.

Barbara’s energy had no limits.  “We’ll sleep when we’re old,” she would said. During the 2000 election “recount” Ted was selected by the Bush campaign to lead the legal team.  Barbara took off for Florida with him to work all day and night on whatever was necessary, from counting chads to her best talent, debating election law on TV.  While the rest of us were vacationing during the 2001 Congressional recess, Barbara was editing her book, appearing nightly on CNN on the latest legal issue, and taking care of her clients at Barbour, Griffith and Rogers.  Despite this busy schedule, she hosted a dinner party September 8 for the Attorney General and entire Justice Department senior management because she understood the importance of their meeting socially, a key factor for working together as a team.  The name cards were still on her dining room table the night of September 11.

When necessary, Barbara was tough.  Bob Bennett, President Clinton’s famed lawyer during impeachment, dubbed her and Barbara Comstock, the “Barberellas.”  Both worked for Chairman William Klinger, heading the House Travelgate investigation.  Barbara Olson was amused by being given the image of a sex siren sporting thigh high boots.  At least she was not considered a “softie,” a portrayal she would have soundly rejected.  After she had conducted a long and particularly contentious deposition of Hollywood producer Harry Thomason, another Bennett client, Thomason got up from his chair, smiled and gave her a bear hug before leaving the Congressional office.  Olson turned to Comstock with a mock look of concern,  “Do you think I was too nice to him?”

 “It was always a party when Barbara walked into the room,” remembers David Bossie, a former House staffer who worked with her for five years.  “No matter how serious the situation, no matter how devoted to the cause, Barbara could always step back and find the humor of the moment.” 

It was Barbara who ran out of the U.S. Supreme Court after her husband had argued the historical Bush v. Gore, which resulted in George W. Bush being declared president, and called a friend with her most important observation: “ Can you believe David Boies [Al Gore’s lawyer] wore tennis shoes?” she gasped.  It was Barbara who, when receiving the lunch bill for two people who had helped with her husband’s confirmation, shook her long blonde hair back and laughed, “I just spent .1% of Ted’s salary for next year!”

She never flaunted her tender side, but it was there.  Prior to her marriage to Ted, when she had a law school debt and limited income as a new associate in a D.C. law firm, Barbara learned that a colleague, a young single mother, could not afford to fly herself and her son home for a family emergency.  She talked the airline into converting her own frequent flyer miles to her colleague’s airfare.  Ted learned of this kind act from the grateful mother only after September 11.

Barbara was 45.  We suspect that had she lived to 100 she would not have reached an age when she would have found it permissible to sleep.  The terrorists deprived us of finding out.

 

 

 

 

©2005 diGenova & Toensing, LLP
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