Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

“Can I Actually Close Down Congress?”

Most people are well aware of what they were doing when they first learned about the attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. But how many people know how Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who at the time was the second in line in presidential succession, spent his day? In an interview with the Office of the Historian, Speaker Hastert shared his recollections and personal memories of 9/11.

Typically, Speaker Hastert traveled from his Illinois district to the Capitol on Tuesday mornings, but his schedule changed to accommodate a meeting on September 10 with President George W. Bush. Already in his office on the morning of September 11 when the first plane struck the World Trade Center at 8:46, Hastert, much like the rest of the nation, had no idea of the tragic events that had been set in motion. The Speaker quickly surmised after a second plane hit the Twin Towers only 17 minutes later that the nation was under attack. “In my mind I knew this is not an accident, this is a terrorist event of some type and we needed to react.”

Realizing the gravity of the situation, Hastert attempted to contact Vice President Dick Cheney. Unable to reach the Vice President on a secure line, the Speaker answered another phone in his office assuming that Cheney had called him directly. Rather than the Vice President, the Speaker found himself on the line with a citizen who had called the Capitol switchboard to register his unhappiness with the state of the economy. Brought back to reality when he saw smoke rising above the Mall, Speaker Hastert and his staff soon learned that a third plane had crashed—this time hitting the Pentagon.

Watch Speaker Hastert recall the morning of the attacks:

The Honorable J. Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House of Representatives Interview recorded January 4, 2012

While trying to keep up with the rapidly evolving events of the day, Speaker Hastert had other concerns closer to home. As the leader of the House, many monumental decisions fell upon his shoulders, such as how to handle the day’s proceedings. With the House already in session, Hastert pondered his options. “Can I do this? Can I actually close down Congress?” Unable to reach leadership on the Senate side to check on their status, Hastert realized he must act quickly. He decided to “cancel” the session. Hastert asked Representative Porter Goss of Florida to serve as Speaker pro tempore. After a quick prayer by the guest chaplain, the House recessed at 9:53.

Watch Speaker Hastert recall his decision to cancel the House session:

The Honorable J. Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House of Representatives Interview recorded January 4, 2012

Fearful that a plane would target the Capitol, Hastert’s security detail whisked him out of the Capitol to a waiting car. Soon the Speaker boarded a helicopter to join other congressional leaders at a secure location. He recalled an eerily quiet city usually bustling on a weekday—no traffic on the streets, no planes taking off or landing at Reagan National Airport, and only “blue-black smoke just belching out of the Pentagon,” a stark contrast to the beautiful, crisp morning on 9/11. After arriving at the secret location, Hastert and the other leaders received updates from the White House and watched television reports to learn about what had transpired. Once the threat diminished, he left the secure spot and headed back to the Capitol in the early evening.

Speaker Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who had agreed to make a public appearance to affirm Congress’s resolve in the wake of the attacks, were met by a large contingent of their congressional colleagues on the Capitol steps. Aware of the importance of his speech, but with little time to prepare, Hastert recalled speaking from the heart. “I got up and basically said, ‘This country will come together. We’ll work together, we’ll solve these problems, we won’t let this deter is, and we’ll be strong.’” When the Members then broke out in a spontaneous rendition of “God Bless America,” Hastert observed, “I knew that we would stand shoulder to shoulder and we would get through this thing, and ostensibly we did.”

Source: “The Honorable J. Dennis Hastert Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [January 4, 2012].