Interview with Cathy Travis
Kindle Digital Publishing (2011)
Reviewed by Paige Lovitt for Reader Views (7/11)
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is honored to interview Cathy Travis, who is here to talk about her new book “Target Sitting.”
Cathy Travis worked on Capitol Hill for twenty-five years as a communications director, senior advisor, and political consultant for various Members of Congress until her early retirement. A native of Jonesboro, Arkansas, Travis graduated from Arkansas State University and resides in Washington, D.C. Travis’ first book, the award-winning “Constitution Translated for Kids,” was hailed by partisans in all major political parties as an even-handed, non-ideological rendition of the founding U.S. document. Travis herself has been a registered Independent for over a decade.
Tyler: Welcome, Cathy. I’m very intrigued by your book. I understand your book is about living through the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on Washington D.C. as well as the ensuing events such as the anthrax scare. Will you tell us a little about what your position was on Capitol Hill at that time?
Cathy: I was a press secretary for Congressman Solomon Ortiz, a conservative Democrat from South Texas. I talked to reporters, and wrote everything: press releases, speeches, briefings—you name it. I’d been with Congressman Ortiz for over a decade already by 2001, so we could read each other’s minds, faces and moods—we were already more like family than merely boss-staffer. He was on the House Armed Services Committee, so we were intimately familiar with nuanced military policy and the things that most affected how ready the U.S. was to go and fight anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice.
Tyler: Where were you on September 11th and what do you remember of the events?
Cathy: Mr. Ortiz and I were at a press conference on the top floor of the United States Capitol; aka, the “target.” Going over there was tough after seeing the attacks in New York. Get this, the subject for the press conference: “Is America Prepared for Future Threats?” Someone else named it that the week before.
When we saw the muted TV in the press gallery switch from events at the World Trade Center to a smoking Pentagon—the caption reading “White House being evacuated”—we bolted. Waiting the few minutes to get out was excruciating, and—for the first time in my life—I realized that fear has a sound. It’s a guttural, air-stuck-in-the-back-of-the-throat sound; but that description just doesn’t adequately describe it. Running out of the building you work in, expecting it to erupt in a ball of fire behind you, is crushingly disconcerting.
Tyler: Cathy, where did you go when you left the Capitol building? Was there anywhere in Washington D.C. that felt safe?
Cathy: Neither of us had a cell phone so we went to our office in the Rayburn building. In hindsight, that was dumb, going back in a building. But we wanted to warn the rest of the staff; Mr. Ortiz wanted to get all of us out. Believe it or not, that was the quickest way. We were just there for a couple of minutes, and then I went back to my condo about five blocks away. There was no place in D.C.—probably the whole country—that felt safe. I passed a family on the walk home, standing outside their hotel. The little girl was crying, refused to go inside. No place felt safe.
Tyler: Americans often wonder whether people in the government knew ahead of time about the possibility of the attacks. Would you say the reaction in Washington D.C. matched the shock of the rest of the country, or how did it differ?
Cathy: The 9-11 report—the most definitive and complete work on what we knew about the terrorists, their history, their intentions, and our responses—revealed the government certainly knew that al Qaeda was testing our defenses, and preparing for an attack using airplanes. They nearly sunk the USS Cole in 2000. People at my level expected that terrorists would attack the Capitol, but we didn’t know what the government’s leaders knew.
Only leaders at the highest levels at the White House, military, and intelligence agencies knew—in 2001—what the 9-11 report meticulously laid out in mid-2004. Now, knowing an attack is coming…and knowing WHERE it’s coming…are entirely separate things. We were absolutely shocked, or in shock. The biggest difference for those of us on the Hill was everybody was watching us go through it.
Tyler: What made you decide on the title “Target Sitting” for your book?
Cathy: More than once over the decades, I’d heard people jokingly refer to the Capitol as the “target.” I picked up on that, long before 9-11, as an occasional, inside shorthand for the Capitol. But 9-11—and all the days that followed—drove home the literal nature of that shorthand. Throughout the journals—on which the book is based—I repeatedly refer to going to work as “target sitting.” That seemed the logical title.
Tyler: Cathy, had the Capitol been hit and destroyed, how do you think it would have changed the country. I ask because despite the horrible loss of human life at the World Trade Center, the terrorists’ goal to destroy our economy by targeting those buildings did not succeed. Had a large number of the United States congressmen been killed, would the government have been able to function in the aftermath? Were there backup plans in place for such a situation?
Cathy: Just my guess, but had the Capitol been hit, it would have been part of the psychological damage we suffered that day anyway. We actually have no plans quickly to replace large numbers of dead members of Congress—still. If we had 218 members of the House left (out of 435), we might be able to pass bills and limp along. Governors could replace lost senators on the same day, but the House would have to wait on special elections to send replacement House members.
9-11 inspired me to come up with an idea to replace House members quickly, and in a way that respected the partisan makeup of the lost members, constitutional intentions, and new elections. But nobody wanted that. Every time the Congress took up the conversation about how to replace lost members, they only supported options that gave their party an advantage in the aftermath. That’s exactly the wrong time to play for partisan advantage.
My idea to replace lost House members: Governors from states with lost members would send replacements from their state legislature, who must be from the same party as those killed or incapacitated. At the same time, governors would call for special elections; and the appointed replacement members could not run in the special elections. But nobody was interested in that idea; it didn’t favor one party over the other. It would need to be an amendment to the Constitution.
Tyler: During the time following the attacks and the following anthrax scare, did you consider leaving your job and Washington D.C.?
Cathy: No, but I had to field requests from dozens of well-meaning friends and family members to get out of D.C. Many staffers did leave the Hill in the months following the attacks. After the Anthrax attacks, a ton of people left. By the time the Anthrax was discovered, I was sorta fatalistic about it. I figured if they killed me, it would just have to be a good day to die.
Tyler: How did you cope with the fear you must have felt constantly? Was writing this book part of how you coped?
Cathy: A counselor at Human Resources for the House of Representatives told me that I should fight the fear with the strongest weapon I had. She told me to write about it. On the one hand, it was hard to do. But in the end, it helped very much. She called it “journaling,” which was a new verb for me. The journals were very extensive and they eventually became what is today’s “Target Sitting.”
Tyler: What do you think the government did right and what could they have done better during this time?
Cathy: The government did a lot wrong that day, and beyond. But this was very right: in the week following 9-11, President George Bush visited a mosque. That was a powerful statement that showed the world this country’s freedom of religion included Muslims in our national family. More importantly, that visit illustrated that the U.S. did not hold Islam responsible for the attacks… just the radicals who flew the planes or colluded with them. Then that effort fell off.
What could we have done better? We could have sent a massive force to Afghanistan in the first place—when it mattered the most—instead of trying to do it with a smaller number of troops. We could have not declared a second war, into Iraq, diluting the military force much more. We could have paid the bills from the beginning. One of the things I lamented throughout the journals was the fact that we started our historical borrowing in the summer of 2001—before 9-11—to give money to taxpayers, calling them “tax cuts.”
Then we never paid the bills. Never paid the bills. From there it was a fast gallop to borrow more money for the urgent 9-11 response at home and on the battlefield. Still, year after year, we never paid the bills. Worse, nobody gave a damn. That galled me. Galls me still.
So, we could have focused our efforts militarily and paid the bills. We could have managed lots of mistakes that are naturally part of war if we had done those two things.
Tyler: While I can understand writing about your experiences as a way to cope, what made you decide to publish the book?
Cathy: Part of the journals included a series of notes I sent out to my family and friends who were worried about a follow up attack. So there were a number of people who were reading about me talking about that intense moment in time, and how that was affecting the people who worked on Capitol Hill. Tons of people urged me to publish them then, and occasionally, somebody has suggested it during the years since then.
But it seemed like an unfinished, unhappy story. The U.S. military victory in killing bin Laden was an extraordinary bookend to that moment in our national history. That…and the decade anniversary of the attacks…this just seemed like the perfect moment to share the first-hand trials and tribulations from Capitol Hill during that time.
Tyler: This year marks the ten year anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Do you feel our country is better prepared now than it was for another such attempt?
Cathy: Of course. Our security is nowhere near perfect, but we’ve had time and technology to make us better prepared over the last decade. Are we still susceptible to another mass attack? Of course.
Tyler: I imagine the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death came while you were completing your book—does his death make any difference to you or your story—would you have changed anything in the book as a result?
Cathy: This is the great thing about digital publishing. I hadn’t planned to write this book. The journals were extensive, so a vast body of work already existed. I began culling the journals and putting them into a book form a few weeks AFTER bin Laden’s death. The Navy Seals killing of bin Laden was the event that inspired me to publish a book that reminded us of the tenor of those times. Traditional publishing couldn’t move that fast.
Tyler: What do you hope readers will come away better understanding after they finish reading “Target Sitting?”
Cathy: We’ve become jaded about trusting the government after the waste of the last decade…not going “all in” at the very beginning in Afghanistan, declaring a second war that had nothing to do with al Qaeda before we invaded Iraq, and not paying the bills. I’d like readers to remember and relive the resilient American spirit—how we stood together in the dark times following 9-11 and the anthrax attacks. I’d like them to remember what actually happened, not some fantasy history. And I’d like them to come away remembering that when it matters the most, Americans really can stand together.
Tyler: Cathy, it’s easy for the general public to criticize the president, regardless of who is in office. May I ask why you have chosen to be an Independent, and did that hurt or hinder you working on Capitol Hill?
Cathy: At the risk of sounding like a one-note band, it was over not paying the bills. In March, 2001, the majority in Congress passed—and the president signed—a law to send money from the Treasury back to taxpayers—a move that reversed a decade of getting the budget in balance. It was the nation’s first move back to deficit spending and it frustrated me beyond measure.
That was when we needed the first loan—to pay for “tax cuts.” Maybe we should have called them “voter bribes.” I worked for a Democrat then, had always been a Democrat. But when the majority Republicans put the “tax cut” bill up for a vote, the Democrats didn’t oppose it. Democrats said the Republicans’ “tax cut” was immoral, and their “tax cut” alternative was less immoral.
I just thought that was a lousy campaign slogan. Both parties were advocating spending money we didn’t have in the Treasury in a lame attempt to buy off voters. I didn’t want to be part of a party that just laid down on one of the most important issues of our time.
You’d think it’d hurt me to change parties from Democrat to Independent. Just the opposite; I got a great deal of respect from people of all political persuasions. They knew I was right. They could do math. They knew better than anybody what we were doing. I wasn’t an officeholder, didn’t have to balance the politically smart thing with the right thing—I was just a mouthy staffer. But the party-changing actually enhanced my reputation.
Tyler: Do you feel any nervousness about having published this book—of upsetting people? Or do you feel because you are now retired from the government that you can fully embrace your right to freedom of speech?
Cathy: I really was pretty mouthy—on the Hill, and off. I’ve always practiced the heck out of my freedom of speech. I’m not nervous, per se, but when I started organizing this book, I knew I had to be OK with letting people see me yakking about—and trying to manage—my raw fear. It’s pretty personal, pretty painful. That’s a little intimidating…but then I target sat for seven years and worked in politics all my life. So not that much truly intimidates me.
In politics, at least half the people are upset with you all the time. So I’m used to that, too. Plus, I’m talking about things that happened almost a decade ago—the political debate over those matters is long over and the repercussions have been upon us for a while.
Tyler: Would you tell us how and why you ended up working in Washington D.C. Was it always a dream of yours to be involved in government and politics?
Cathy: At about age twelve, I became aware of the community around me and the difficulties of the 1960s in the South. Kept thinking, there has to be a way to make people behave. While there wasn’t literally a way to make people behave, I settled for going to the place where they made the rules: Washington D.C. I worked in campaigns as a teenager and in college…served as a student government senator in college. My daddy’s childhood friend—Bill Alexander—was the local congressman, and he gave me my first job on Capitol Hill.
Tyler: Many Americans are cynical about the government today. Based on your up close experiences, do you feel the American system of government works “by the people, for the people” the majority of the time?
Cathy: We are the government. It works best when people are actively involved in it…when they vote, when they choose candidates and get in the debate about leaders and policies…and when they look for information on their own, rather than take information about their government from a single, biased source. If you get news from many sources of even-handed information, you’ll be an informed citizen. But most of us don’t do that. People who get tainted “news,” base their decisions on bad information.
What—or who—movie stars do is not the news I’m talking about. We’re in an odd place right now. We have access to more information than we have ever had, but it’s such a massive amount of information, it’s overwhelming. It’s for concerned citizens to seek accurate information so they will be informed. Government is at its worst when people lap up biased information from a single source and believe that anybody who disagrees is a traitor.
I was surprised at the amount of space in my journals decrying citizens’ belief in a single TV network, and their almost zen-like faith in their very slanted coverage of news events. That zen-like faith let Congress and the president lead many Americans to support a first strike war that put our country in a new aggressor category. It led to deception about what tax cuts were, and the very high cost of them. It let Congress get away with never paying the bills, as debt built up in the early part of the decade.
It allowed Congress to let banks do anything they wanted, at the eventual cost of an imploding housing market and banking crisis. All that was the underpinning of the global economic collapse in September of 2008.
Tyler: Cathy, I won’t ask which network you mean; I have a pretty good idea, but what are a few sources you would recommend as being even-handed or unbiased in their reporting?
Cathy: Thing is, what with humans and instant deadlines involved in news reporting today, all will have some bias, even for deadlines or brevity. That makes it easy for people to say “everybody does it, can’t be helped.” The art of getting good information is finding the sources that get it right MOST of the time.
The larger news sources (with multiple bureaus and editors) tend to be more consistently even-handed: the Associated Press, Bloomberg, Reuters, New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune. Newspapers are dying, so news sources are evolving. CNN gets it wrong less often than other cable news networks, but TV is usually only good for pictures and headlines. Whenever I see a news story about a report or audit—I find the source and read it myself. Inevitably, I find even better nuggets than were reported.
Only thing I really like about Wikipedia is their footnote links to original sources of information. Just to illustrate the length to which partisans are going to control information, look no further than “Conservapedia.” At first, I thought somebody was playing a joke when I saw that.
It really is harder now to get news with less bias. If you are only comfortable reading a leading “conservative” news source, I’d suggest the “Manchester (NH) Union-Leader” or “Business Week”… and if you only want a liberal news source, check in with “John Stewart’s Daily Show” or the “Huffington Post.” Those sources have a steady partisan bent, but are also critical of those with whom they generally agree when they are wrong.
Facts aren’t fun. Nuance is too hard to figure out. When people are mad about getting hoodwinked, when their savings have gone away, when they can’t find jobs, when their kids can’t afford school…it is more comfortable to listen to news brought to you by people you agree with on abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, or religion.
People passionate about that stuff generally aren’t also experts in economic policy. But it is economic policy that profoundly affects the whole country. The other things are important too, but how we perceive the moral issues of our time are all our individual choices. National economic and tax policy are choices imposed on us. That’s the ball to keep our eyes on.
Tyler: Americans are very proud of their history and the vision of the Founding Fathers. Do you think in the twenty-first century we are carrying on the vision of the Founders in a way that would make them proud, and is comparing the government today to that of the few decades following the American Revolution even a fair comparison since the Founding Fathers never could have envisioned all the changes—from massive immigration to technology—that have happened in American history since?
Cathy: The Founders’ version of liberty, and their hopes for the United States, was manifested in the U.S. Constitution. We’ve only amended it seventeen times since we adopted the Constitution—so it’s a near-perfect statement of ideals, liberties, and separation of powers. It’s withstood a civil war, a century of denying rights to some Americans, and the technology that came with the Twentieth Century: motored vehicles, radio, TV, an Air Force, NASA, Internet, technology gains, and all the scientific knowledge we are leaping forward through every day.
I ain’t speaking for them, but I bet the Founders would be most pleased by the mere fact we are still here—that their great wager on a democracy and a republic was a winning hand throughout history…to the point it is mimicked in emerging democracies today. I’m certain they’d be fascinated with all our gadgets and delighted in our place in the world now, despite our monumental mistakes after the turn of the century.
They would have certainly been mortified at the years of feckless borrowing and borrowing—all the while fooling people into believing the “tax cut” money they were getting was extra money lying around in the treasury. All the while, it was money their children would have to pay back to China, with interest. I think the Founders would have preferred regular math—and they abhorred any foreign entanglement, particularly foreign debt, or any debt.
Given their particular moment in history, the late 1770s, I bet they would be very surprised today by NATO and the United Nations. Not opposed, just wildly surprised.
Immigrants have always added to the greatness of the U.S.; from the Europeans in the early days, the Chinese and Asians who emigrated to the Pacific coast and helped build the 19th century railroads, the Mexicans who populated the southwest states we took after the war with Mexico, the Africans who came against their wills for over a century, to today’s influx of immigrants from everywhere. We are a great country because we are reflective of the world. It’s always been one of our best things, and it’s always been controversial for lots of Americans.
Tyler: I mentioned in the introduction that you’ve also written a book for children about the constitution. Will you tell us what motivated you to write that book?
Cathy: It’s “Constitution Translated for Kids” (http://www.travisbooks.com/constitution-for-kids/), and it takes the entire text of the U.S. Constitution and runs a fifth grade version of what it says/what it means alongside each section of the Constitution. I’ve gotten really remarkable feedback on that book. I was motivated to write it after hearing constitutional principles wrongly stated by Americans; from presidential candidates to Members of Congress, to journalists, to Joe Blow on the street.
Tyler: What’s next for you, Cathy? Do you plan to write more books?
Cathy: Until now, I’ve only published non-fiction, but in mid-September, I’ll release my first novel, “Remember Who You Are.” It’s a coming of age story set in 1969 in Jonesboro, Arkansas, my hometown, at the end of the Civil Rights movement, in the midst of a murder that tests a number of people. Neighbors in a tiny neighborhood must choose to do the right thing, or do nothing.
Tyler: Sounds fascinating, Cathy. Have you wanted to write this novel for a long-time, and do you think your time in Washington will color or influence the story?
Cathy: Writers write about what they know. I know my hometown; and I know politics and Washington. Stories can’t help but be influenced by all that. Actually, the novel is told in back story, by a Supreme Court nominee during a confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill circa 1998. There are constitutional references throughout. I’m pretty sure every story I ever write will be informed by all my experiences, particularly my time in government from 1983—2007.
Tyler: Thank you again, Cathy, for the informative interview today. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information we can find there about “Target Sitting”?
Cathy: My website is: http://www.travisbooks.com/; I’ll post reviews and stories there about “Target Sitting”…and people can see my other books that are percolating out there.
Tyler: Thanks again, Cathy. Best of luck with your books and thank you for educating us a bit further on government and the 9/11 attacks.