Virginia Buckingham on 9/11, the unbearable burden of blame and moving forward
May 13, 2022. Series 6. Episode 42
To kick off this new series I’m joined by Ginny Buckingham – the quietly spoken, devoted mum-of-two who for a period of her life faced the frankly unfathomable trauma of being publicly blamed for thousands of deaths.
Ginny was the boss of Boston’s Logan Airport where, on the morning of September 11th 2001, a group of terrorists boarded American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, airliners that of course very soon after take-off, they would hijack and later fly into New York’s World Trade Centre.
Ginny led a daunting, frankly unprecedented crisis management operation at Logan but within 48hours of the attacks, the blame game began.
It was wrongly claimed that the terrorists had targeted Logan because of its weak security systems and links to Boston politics.
There were angry demands for Ginny to resign and, as one newspaper put it – ‘atone’ for the massacre. Her political bosses – as so often happens in crisis – saw the opportunity for a scapegoat. Blame, as Ginny puts it, gave them the opportunity to get control of an uncontrollable situation.
Six weeks after the attacks, she was forced to resign but faced years of continued accusations and a personal legal claim from the wife of a 9/11 victim. As the second anniversary of the atrocity approached, Ginny sat alone in her car and considered suicide.
This is a conversation about blame, the psychological impact of public scandal, guilt and recovery. Of how when crisis, politics and media collide, those in the crosshairs can find themselves in the most brutal of positions.
In her book On My Watch (and indeed during this pod), Ginny stresses time and again that her difficulties are nothing as compared to those who lost their lives on 9/11 and the families they left behind.
But hers is a story of how public crisis can so often create powerful tides of misplaced retribution and blame that wreak havoc on those unfortunate enough to be in the way. That even after she was very publicly exonerated by the 9/11 commission, the psychological damage, continued, demonstrating I think, that crisis can have a very long, unseen but very damaging tail.
Ginny hopes that by telling her story, our leaders might think twice before reaching for the scapegoat button when trouble comes – and I hope she’s right. Huge thanks to her for joining us and I hope you find this podcast useful.
Ginny’s Crisis Cures:
1 – Make a room in your home a haven for you during crisis and while you’re healing. I have a sitting room in the corner of my house that has my candles and my artwork and my books – that’s where I curl up in the corner, take a breath and say, “Okay. Go at this again tomorrow.”
2 – Find a purpose outside of yourself and your current situation to devote yourself to. In my case I was very lucky that I had two little children to take care of and devote myself to outside of what was happening. But whether it’s parenting or taking care of your dog or your neighbour – it gives purpose and meaning to your day to day.
3 – Do good with something bad. In my case, I took my story and I put it in a book and I put it out in the world. So don’t just let the bad things sit. Take advantage of the crisis and do good with it.
Ginny’s Crisis Track: Bruce Springsteen ‘The Rising’
Charity – https://www.911memorial.org/donate
‘On My Watch’ – Memoir by Virginia Buckingham – https://amzn.to/3RJ8pGO
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream: https://open.spotify.com/track/5OX9XgJufFz9g63o2Dv2i5?si=b2f9397c92084682
00:00:41.04 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to the first episode of series six of Crisis What Crisis? I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and one time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. Over the last seven years I’ve put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad, in my experience, has been just as useful as the good. So on this podcast you’ll hear from the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. But you’ll also hear from renowned crisis managers, mental health and performance experts and advisors who were in the room when major crises have hit. All of them offering useful, practical coping techniques and tips to help you find your way to a more resilient life.
00:01:38.00 Andy Coulson:
Crisis What Crisis? Is generously supported by Myndstream, a brilliant company who harness the power of music for personal wellbeing and improving human performance. Just search Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y, on Spotify and you’ll find some really great playlists. If you enjoy what you hear on this podcast please subscribe and give us a rating and review, it helps enormously. You can also follow us on Instagram, our handle is @crisiswhatcrisispodcast.
00:02:10.19 Andy Coulson:
To kick off this new series I’m joined by Ginny Buckingham, the quietly spoken, devoted mum of two who for a period of her life, faced the frankly unfathomable trauma of being publicly blamed for thousands of deaths. Ginny was the boss of Boston’s Logan Airport where, on the morning of September 11th 2001, a group of terrorists boarded American Airlines flight 11 and United Airlines flight 175. Airliners, that of course very soon after take-off, they would hijack and later fly into New York’s World Trade Centre.
00:02:50.21 Andy Coulson:
Ginny led a daunting, frankly unprecedented, crisis management operation at Logan. But within forty-eight hours of the attacks the blame game began. It was wrongly claimed that the terrorists had targeted Logan because of its weak security systems and links to Boston politics. There were angry demands for Ginny to resign and as one newspaper put it, ‘atone for the massacre’. Her political bosses, as so often happens in crisis, saw the opportunity for a scapegoat. Blame, as Ginny puts it, gave them the opportunity to gain control of an uncontrollable situation. Six weeks after the attacks she was forced to resign but faced years of continued accusations and a personal legal claim from the wife of a 9/11 victim. As the second anniversary of the atrocity approached, Ginny sat alone in her car and considered suicide.
00:03:47.18 Andy Coulson:
This is a conversation about blame, the psychological impact of public scandal, guilt and recovery. Of how when crisis, politics and media collide those in the crosshairs can find themselves in the most brutal of positions. In her book, On My Watch and indeed during this podcast, Ginny stresses time and again that her difficulties are nothing as compared to those who lost their lives on 9/11, of course, and the families that they left behind. But hers is a story of how public crisis can so often create powerful tides of misplaced retribution and blame, that wreak havoc on those unfortunate enough to be in the way.
00:04:33.05 Andy Coulson:
That even after she was very publicly exonerated by the 9/11 commission the psychological damage continued, demonstrating, I think, that crisis can have a very long, unseen, but very damaging tale. Ginny hopes that by telling her story our leaders might think twice before reaching for the scapegoat button when trouble comes. And I hope she’s right. Huge thanks to her for joining us and I hope you find this podcast useful. Virginia Buckingham, Ginny, welcome to Crisis What Crisis? And thanks so much for joining me.
00:05:07.23 Virginia Buckingham:
Thanks for having me.
00:05:09.20 Andy Coulson:
Ginny, your brilliant book, On My Watch, was published, I think, almost exactly two years ago now. Was it a difficult decision to write your story in such detail? You know there’s a risk, of course, that it would reignite some of those darker feelings for you. Perhaps even open you up to the fresh criticism, however unjustified, that comes with putting yourself out there, particularly in this day and age.
00:05:38.05 Virginia Buckingham:
My only hesitation was that I don’t want anyone to think that I equate my story, or my situation, with that of the 9/11 families. And of course, my story is nothing like theirs and what I suffered is nothing like what they have suffered. So that was my one hesitation. And I think I make that pretty clear both in the book and how I talk about it. Otherwise, you know, I’m a writer at heart and I found I could do nothing but write about it in order to try to make sense of it. And I didn’t know for sure if it would turn into a book, I didn’t know if the book would get published. I just knew to work through it in my own heart and soul, I had to write it down.
00:06:19.14 Andy Coulson:
Did you write much about it as you were living it, if you like? Obviously not in the immediate moment because, well, we’ll talk about that because you had such a huge job to do. But did you find that at all helpful as a process, if indeed you did take the time to write?
00:06:39.08 Virginia Buckingham:
Sometimes, I think time and perspective are really necessary, I think, when you’re telling a story that’s a memoir, a personal journey story, because while you’re living it you can’t always make heads or tails of it or communicate it in a way that has meaning. So I would say it was mostly in the aftermath as I reflected on what happened.
00:07:02.22 Andy Coulson:
Tell us a little, if you don’t mind, about life before politics, which was the first staging post in your career. Tell me about the young Ginny. You’re one of eight children, I think?
00:07:15.06 Virginia Buckingham:
I am, I grew up in New England, seventh of eighth, the youngest girl. My dad was a milkman and my mum was a hospital clerk. And we lived a very fun, simple life playing wiffle ball in the backyard and basketball and riding our bikes in the neighbourhood and life was very normal. And I saw this brochure for Boston College which to me seemed like something out of a dream, to be able to apply to a school like that. So I took that chance and got in and came to Boston when I was seventeen and never looked back.
00:07:55.11 Andy Coulson:
Wow, so you were the first in your family to have followed that path?
00:07:59.14 Virginia Buckingham:
Well, others went to college, about half went to college, but none out of state and none to such a big, prestigious school. So a bit of a risk.
00:08:10.18 Andy Coulson:
As a young woman, after college, you moved quite quickly into political communications. And you, in fact, were the first woman to have been appointed as a chief of staff. After communications you moved onto that more significant role, as a chief of staff to the Governor of Massachusetts. In those roles you will have seen how the blame game can be deployed in politics, particularly during campaign periods and you were involved in some pretty significant campaigns. We’ll talk about blame culture in more detail later. How do you reflect now on the part that blame, the need to find someone to pin a problem on, as you say in the book rather brilliantly, in politics, That blame is the means by which politicians can get control of the uncontrollable, I think is your view?
00:09:09.01 Virginia Buckingham:
Well you know, one hopes that that isn’t deployed unfairly. But of course, it is in many different situations. I learned in politics, as I’m sure you did, that it can be a simplistic business and making things understandable and quickly resolvable is too often the go-to, rather than really digging in to the very complex issues that often are what are presented. And you know, I can’t say I wasn’t part of that culture when I was in government. I was in the State House here in Massachusetts for ten years and I’m sure that I played that game with others. Not in a situation as serious and world changing as 9/11 of course. But a part of my hope is that stories like mine send a little message to political leaders that that isn’t the way to solve problems and that isn’t serving their constituents, to just blame somebody and just brush the problem under the rug.
00:10:15.06 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, almost impossible, or much harder to do now, because of the way that media works, because of social media and the speed with which judgements are now made, even so much faster, and we’ll talk about obviously in your situation it moved very, very quickly against you. But speed has increased not decreased since then, hasn’t it?
00:10:39.22 Virginia Buckingham:
I am so grateful there was no social media back when this happened in 2001 because it was so awful and so brutal and so personal in the media against me, I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been, exponentially worse.
00:10:56.20 Andy Coulson:
You were appointed to the role of CEO of Massport the authority that oversees the running of Logan Airport in 1999. It was a big job that you were qualified to do and I assume very excited to do, a huge challenge.
00:11:14.09 Virginia Buckingham:
Well, people don’t believe me sometimes when I say this, but I wasn’t excited to do it in that I loved my job as chief of staff. And I was chief of staff to a second governor, asked to stay on in that role. I’d just had my first and so I was home on maternity leave when the job running Massport got offered to me and I turned it down. I turned it down three times until the governor himself asked me to do it. And it wasn’t because I knew I couldn’t do it, I knew I could, it was the same type of role I had in the State House, which was driving an agenda, making sure that thee professionals operating the facilities could get their improvements done that they had to do through a very political process. I just didn’t want to change jobs. But you don’t say no to a governor especially after being asked three times, so I ultimately said yes. And I absolutely loved it. It was a lot of fun, it was important, we were running some of the most important economic facilities in the region. The airport, the port of Boston, to other smaller airports. The issues were thorny, the politics were difficult; it was everything I loved to do.
00:12:31.19 Andy Coulson:
Have you, as a result of your experiences, have you sometime gone back to that day when you finally agreed to take the job? Have you gone back there in your mind, to that day and thought to yourself, if only I’d made a different decision?
00:12:48.15 Virginia Buckingham:
I try not to because it’s not useful, it doesn’t serve me to do that. And so when the thought, inevitably of course, pops up in my mind I let it go because there’s no worth in dwelling there.
00:13:05.07 Andy Coulson:
You see that’s an easy thing to say and very hard to do, isn’t it? To say to yourself, this is pointless, I’m not going to allow my mind to spend any time there.
00:13:18.09 Virginia Buckingham:
I think it’s a constant battle for all sorts of reasons. For instance and we’ll get into this, my healing journey took a long time. I regret that, of course I do, I wish it was faster. I wish that I had understood things clearly earlier. But I also try to push that away and let that go because it’s it took what it took and I can’t dwell that I wish that I had been stronger, earlier on.
00:13:46.00 Andy Coulson:
Can we go to the day itself? To September 11th 2001. Given, as we just discussed, the progress that you were making in the job, you’re on top of your game really, as you, I think are in your car that morning, when you get the first phone call. Are you able to sort of take us back there, just before the phone call? I mean you’re focused on the job, one imagines, the day ahead, what is it you have got to do. I think you were going to take a flight actually, weren’t you?
00:14:23.22 Virginia Buckingham:
I was, you know, the bright blue sky, morning of September 11th 2001. The usual routine, getting my son, who was then two, off to day-care with my husband. Driving into the airport, reading my briefing papers because I was going to Washington that morning to meet with the Head of Federal Aviation Administration about the runway project we were trying to get approved. And it was a real key meeting with members of the president’s administration sitting in as well. So I was really focused on what I had to achieve that day.
00:14:55.15 Virginia Buckingham:
And stopped for coffee at my regular stop on the way and was just listening to the news radio, as I did every morning, and heard about the first report, the first plane going into the tower in New York but no one knew what kind of plane it was. I assumed, like so many did, that it was just a small plane, you know pilot off-course, an accident. And then I continued to listen and was listening live when he second plane flew into the tower and it was reported on instantaneously from the streets of Manhattan. And then of course then I knew that it was not an accident.
00:15:32.19 Virginia Buckingham:
It wasn’t that long after when I got the first call from my office at Logan saying the six words that I talk about in the book, that live in my heart and soul, that changed the world, which were that two planes were off the radar. Two planes were off the radar at Logan Airport. I didn’t know that they were involved, we just knew that two planes couldn’t be found.
00:15:59.13 Andy Coulson:
Do you remember, because you’re a woman whose been around crisis, who’s been in some rooms when some proper, difficult problems are being dealt with, do you remember though what the chain of thought was for you, just from a crisis management perspective, as you began to process what was happening?
00:16:25.13 Virginia Buckingham:
Yes, first of all as a mom, I only wanted to turn around and go home and get my son out of day-care, I wanted to protect him. Then I knew I couldn’t so that was the first thought I had, was go home, no you can’t, go to work. So I knew that we had to get there fast. I knew that we had to get an understanding as quickly as we could of where those two planes were and were there any others that were out there and involved. And I have to say that, perhaps it was my experience dealing with governors who had overseen many crises in the time that I was in the State House, I was very focused and very calm. I understood that this opportunity to try to help was something that I had to do in the best way that I’ve ever done anything. And I just simply stayed focused on that.
00:17:22.19 Virginia Buckingham:
I got to my office as fast as I could and tried to gather the information that we could and pass it on to safety officials and the governor and the mayor and shut down the airport was the big task. There wasn’t time to sit around and think, we had to shut down hundreds of planes that were on the ground waiting to take off. We had to clear the terminals of thousands of people, all while making sure that if they had any information they were sharing it with the public safety officials.
00:17:54.01 Virginia Buckingham:
We had to prepare for the families, families who knew their loved ones were flying out that day and couldn’t reach them and were coming to the airport to see if they could get any information. So it was an enormous task that had to be handled quickly and tremendous discipline and focus.
00:18:10.17 Andy Coulson:
Logistical, operational and deeply, deeply emotional and in waves. So getting to the even the most basic understanding of what was happening itself must have been just from an internal communications perspective. I remember I was a deputy editor on a newspaper here on that day and I was stood in the editor’s office watching it on the television, just as journalists were all over the world. And it took some time before people could begin to comprehend actually what had happened. So from the time that you’re getting that phone call to the time where you are able to make a decision we need to shut the airport down, how long was that?
00:19:04.09 Virginia Buckingham:
Minutes, it was minutes. It had to be done fast. The airlines themselves, I have to give them great credit, were the first in the United States to pull their planes down and say land wherever you can. The FAA followed shortly after that. But everyone involved in aviation at that time had never faced anything like this and that they rose to the challenge immediately and knew that the thing that they had to do was get planes down safely wherever they could, I just give them so much credit.
00:19:35.16 Virginia Buckingham:
You know we had trained for emergencies regularly at the airport, as required by the FAA, but we did more than was required because we wanted to learn from other mishaps around the country and the world and make sure we had the safest airport possible. In fact, just earlier, the year before, we had trained for a plane going into the harbour, right off the runway at Logan into Boston harbour. We never trained for anything like this; no one could fathom anything like this, that the planes themselves would be used as weapons, was just unimaginable.
00:20:12.03 Andy Coulson:
Yes, and I imagine from the perspective of your people at Logan as well, all manner of connections, of concern, of the unknown and then eventually I suspect, also of course, of grief, you know amongst your own team must have been terribly difficult to manage.
00:20:38.20 Virginia Buckingham:
It was very, very hard to watch because these people, especially some of our top aviation officials, had come from the airlines so they knew these flight attendants and these pilots personally that were missing. And at the same time that they’re trying to absorb that loss they knew in their heart and soul that the industry that they loved was changed forever. That their jobs were never going to be the same as the aviation industry that they had embraced for its excitement and its adventure in the past and so all of those things.
00:21:17.04 Virginia Buckingham:
And then couple that with the blame game starting so quickly in Boston, within two days there were front page stories saying was it Logan Airport’s fault. And so they’d lost their friends, they’ve lost the career that they thought they had embraced and suddenly they’re being blamed for it. Certainly my name was the one being bandied about but the implication was that Logan had done something wrong. And just so hard to grapple with. I know how I approached it, was I pushed the emotion away, maybe not the healthiest thing to do but it was all I could do and it really wasn’t on purpose. I just really couldn’t dwell in that grief, I had to just stay focused on doing the job.
00:22:00.10 Andy Coulson:
Well as a crisis manager you’re taught, aren’t you, that that’s actually the only way to do the job. Because once emotions seep in bad decisions tend to seep in, or there’s the risk of bad decisions once emotions are involved. So you did the right thing in that sense professionally but as you say that really was the start of difficulty from a personal point of view. Ginny, again, having been around politics so much, when the blame started were you surprised?
00:22:34.20 Virginia Buckingham:
I actually was, I actually was because in those first few days common sense would tell you that planes were hijacked from three different airports at exactly the same time and in addition an additional airport in Maine, where two of the hijackers had boarded to come live and so four airports were involved. That told me, and I think told most people, that it was a national security issue or even an international security issue, not anything specific to Logan Airport. So yes, I was surprised to see that focus so quickly.
00:23:10.18 Andy Coulson:
I suppose my question is not surprise because you thought that someone had done something wrong, because as you say all logic pointed you to the absolute opposite conclusion, but were you surprised that when something so huge happened that there will be people, often in the media and in politics and in other places in public life, that people decided to vent their anger in a particular direction?
00:23:43.12 Virginia Buckingham:
I, of course, recognised that would happen and maybe at some level, it was more the ferocity, or velocity, I guess is a better word, of it and the lack of any leader standing up and saying ‘wait a second, this is not right, this is really off-base’. And because that didn’t happen from our acting governor at the time or mayor at the time, and certainly my saying it wasn’t going to be listened to because I just had, I think, lost that platform being in the midst of the crisis, there was nobody pushing back and so it kind of took on a life of its own.
00:24:25.15 Andy Coulson:
Did that element surprise you, that the people who perhaps could have made the situation easier for you, that they disappeared into the wallpaper?
00:24:40.05 Virginia Buckingham:
It did, it did. I hoped for more support, not just for me but for my colleagues. I’d hoped for clarity for the public’s sake, I don’t think it served the public to let the story become that there was something wrong with Logan Airport and that’s why this happened. Yes, I mean, I know the two governors I worked for would surely have stood up, whether it was me or anyone else, and said this is not about Logan Airport, this is about national security and of terrorism and let’s do what we can to make things better.
00:25:17.11 Andy Coulson:
Let’s talk in a little bit more detail about some of that criticism because to say it was unpleasant was an understatement. It got very personal very quickly and you became the target very quickly. Just give me a flavour, Ginny, of what you remember about that first wave of criticism that you received. How did it sort of manifest itself?
00:25:45.14 Virginia Buckingham:
Front page stories in the big papers in Boston, talk radio was particularly vicious right away. Editorials which are supposed to be, if not objective, at least somewhat based in facts, calling me to step down. Editorials saying that surely it had to have been Logan Airport and Ginny Buckingham because why else would two planes have been hijacked from Boston? Headlines saying I should atone for what had happened by stepping down. Columns saying I shroud be a stay at home mom, what right did I have to still have a job. Just very, very brutal.
00:26:32.05 Virginia Buckingham:
And at first I was able to not take it in. And I resolutely made sure my staff was not paying attention to it because they had a very important job to do. So we would have daily staff meetings to make sure we were on track for all the operational logistics that we had to perform. And also we became the first airport to press for the federalisation of security. And so using our place as the centre of what had happened, calling on Congress and the FA and others to change things became our focus, even while there was a poll being commissioned by a newspaper in Boston where more than half of the public said that I should be fired.
00:27:16.22 Virginia Buckingham:
And so it was that kind of dichotomy of staying focused on the work while the swirl happened. What I didn’t know at the time was that the swirl started to take root in my heart and soul and started to sow a seed of doubt in my own conscious of, are they right? I respect these people, certainly these editorial writers who are so smart and I worked with all the time, and they’re saying it’s me. So what could I have done better? And twenty years later that might sound foolish, but it really did start to seep in to the point where I’ve wrestled with it for years, years.
00:28:01.02 Andy Coulson:
What people didn’t know at that stage, of course, Ginny, was that you were five weeks pregnant. You had a young son at home. For your family, your husband David, the impact of those days, of those accusations, as you say at the beginning of a very, very long and painful journey for you, but it must have been terrible for them as well?
00:28:25.24 Virginia Buckingham:
I mean, my son was little and mostly just wanted his mom home, he didn’t understand why I was never there. You know, my daughter, who I was carrying and worried I would lose and then at one point, horrifically, thought I deserved to lose because of the stress on the pregnancy. Yeah, they both became my purpose afterwards, after I resigned from Logan. And I was determined, for only one reason, to try to survive this and that was to be a good mom to them. And I’m grateful that I had them.
00:29:01.06 Andy Coulson:
You said there that at one stage you thought, in your own head you were saying maybe you deserved to lose your child?
00:29:11.03 Virginia Buckingham:
The guilt that I started to feel, maybe not consciously feel but somewhere deep down felt, was clearly starting to affect how I was thinking about my future and my children’s future.
00:29:31.20 Andy Coulson:
I mean, that’s an incredibly powerful statement. Do you remember that period of time, how you then were able to pull yourself out of that, if you like? What was going through your mind as you were having the darkest of thoughts there, how did you lead yourself out?
00:30:03.23 Virginia Buckingham:
It was the work. I mean, so long as I was working to make things better, while I still was at Logan, I think that’s what allowed me to just put one foot in front of the other and keep pushing. And the purpose of trying to improve safety and be a leading example of how the systems we had in place needed to change. Once I’d left Logan it was just pure survival for a long time. And if I didn’t have a toddler to take care of, if I didn’t give birth to my daughter and have to take care of a little baby, I don’t know what would have happened. But that was my focus, was being a good mom to them.
00:30:51.04 Andy Coulson:
We’ll be right back after this…
00:30:56.22 Andy Coulson:
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00:31:32.08 Andy Coulson:
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00:32:05.00 Andy Coulson:
And now back to Ginny.
00:32:07.24 Andy Coulson:
You resigned from your job, under pressure as I understand it, you weren’t given much choice in the matter by your boss, by the governor. Can you tell me a bit about that process and that decision in the end?
00:32:28.02 Virginia Buckingham:
Yeah, being a political professional I, of course, saw the signs along the way of where this was leading, you know, in the private meeting with the governor where she told me she didn’t blame me but didn’t know how this was all going to turn out. Being told by her Chief of Staff that I could no longer contact her directly. She held press conferences, formed a blue ribbon commission to reform Logan Airport, all the things that politicians do in a normal situation, unexpected in my view, in this kind of situation. And then I was told that they were calling around from the State House trying to figure out a replacement for me. So it was pretty obvious what was going to happen and I wanted to, I think, be the master of my own fate when it came to that. So I opted to resign.
00:33:28.06 Andy Coulson:
Do you sometimes think that you wish you’d fought it harder, longer? Or do you just think it was an impossible situation?
00:33:37.19 Virginia Buckingham:
I think it was impossible, with hindsight I wish that I had just stood up and said the truth and said ‘This is not real, this has nothing to do with Logan Airport, this has nothing to do with me being a political appointee. Please focus on the very pressing security needs that our country now is aware of in a way that we were never aware of before.’ I didn’t have that clarity; I didn’t have that courage at the time.
00:34:10.04 Andy Coulson:
I am a resigning recidivist, I should tell you. I’ve resigned from a number of jobs, Ginny. When you resign there is also the risk, of course, that people will say, ‘ah right, well, there you are because no one resigns without good reason’.
00:34:30.24 Virginia Buckingham:
I asked that question actually the night before I held the press conference to resign. I said, ‘How do I do this without people thinking forever that it’s my fault that thousands of people are dead?’ And there was no answer to that.
00:34:48.15 Andy Coulson:
Have you found an answer to it subsequently or do you say to yourself, actually maybe I shouldn’t have done, maybe I should have let them push?
00:34:56.20 Virginia Buckingham:
No, no I still think for my own sake, for my family’s sake, even for my Logan colleagues’ sake, to just be able to move forward and focus on what they had to get done, it was the right thing to do.
00:35:13.13 Andy Coulson:
After you leave the job, a while later, you go to work on a Boston newspaper as a senior editor. A surprising choice, some might say, given the torrid time that you’d had with the media. Tell us about it.
00:35:36.23 Virginia Buckingham:
Well such fun, right, first of all, you know that. There’s maybe no more fun job in the world than working at a newspaper. And I worked for a tabloid, the number two paper in Boston, so they were kinda the scrappy underdog, which appealed to me. You know, first of all, as I mentioned, I love writing and always wanted a career as a writer. So, as I was looking around at what the heck do I do now, having been disgraced and removed from the political path of governing that I was on. And then I think maybe in my psyche I thought, if I go there then everything they said wasn’t real. So I can go work there and be this other person that I always have been. And for whatever reason I got the job and stayed there for four years and had the time of my life. But I have newspaper of the day, was paid to do that, was paid to tell my opinion and interviewed the same politicians I had wrangled with previously, it was a joy.
00:36:45.09 Andy Coulson:
So you’re properly, albeit from an entirely different perspective, but you are back in the game of judgement, of journalism obviously, but that mixture of agendas and everything else that comes with the collision of politics and news, you’ve still got this huge weight to carry. How were you managing that, I suppose is my question, were you thinking that one would solve the other, if you like?
00:37:30.13 Virginia Buckingham:
The way I described it in my book is, every time I felt like I was swimming to the surface of the water something would happen that would push me back under. So I had this new career, that was really a dream in many, many ways and I would get phone calls at my desk, because obviously I was a public person, so to speak, again, demanding that I apologise for 9/11. One woman would call me once a week and leave me a voice mail saying I don’t know how you live with yourself given what you’ve done. It was this place of trying to move on and then not being able to.
00:38:16.12 Virginia Buckingham:
Until I was sitting at my desk, at the newspaper, when my lawyer called me and told me that I had been sued personally for wrongful death. This was in 2003 and that was the ultimate pushing me down back under. Because to have an actual family, not just an anonymous radio talk show host and caller, an actual family, a mom of two little boys, called me accountable for her husband’s murder, crushed me, it crushed me. And I don’t do anything to hold her in my heart. Her pain has to be so much exponentially harder to bear than mine but it shattered me that a family would think that I could have stopped it.
00:39:11.05 Andy Coulson:
How did that manifest itself with you? Were you able to do a version of what you’d done on the day itself and focus purely on work again? Or not this time?
00:39:27.09 Virginia Buckingham:
I mean, yes, because I could do nothing but work and work and take care of my kids. I did contemplate whether I could bear it and that’s a painful thing to write about and talk about. I do write about it in my book. I went the day or two afterwards and drove to a little private beach in my hometown and sat there and wondered if I could bear to live with being blamed by this family.
00:39:56.11 Andy Coulson:
This is days before the second anniversary I think, is that right?
00:40:00.01 Virginia Buckingham:
That’s correct, so in September. And Bruce Springsteen at the time, had put to the Rising album, which is all about overcoming and moving forwards as a community together, post 9/11. And I would listen to that soundtrack over and over and over. And I was listening to one of the songs which is called Empty Sky, about just what it sounds like, that no planes in the sky, but also for me a shattering of who I was on the one hand and on the other hand I’m thinking Jack and Maddie, who are my two little ones at the time, they don’t deserve to lose their mother. They didn’t do anything wrong. And it took every ounce of strength that I had to pull out of that beach parking lot and go home and promise them… I knelt by my son’s bed and I promised him, he was sound asleep, that I would never leave him. And I held onto that promise as strongly as I’ve ever held onto anything in my life.
00:41:01.02 Andy Coulson:
When you were in the car what was the other voice telling you to do?
00:41:05.09 Virginia Buckingham:
Drive forward, drive into the water, drive into the water, the pain goes away.
00:41:13.15 Andy Coulson:
So through this period, I imagine from the very start of this process you will of course, you’ve got a very big family, a big loving family. You’ve got a lot of friends, I’m sure, around you, your husband most importantly, David. A lot of people telling you, I assume, you can’t let this push you down in the way that it was with regularity. That you did nothing wrong, you’ve got to let it go and move on. You write brilliantly in your book about why that doesn’t work, you know.
00:41:52.14 Virginia Buckingham:
It’s very isolating. Everyone who said those words to me meant it with the most love and support and help. But what they didn’t know, that every time they expressed the ‘move on’ or that ‘this was just politics’, ‘no one really blamed you, it was just politics’, it wasn’t true to what my experience was. And I was truly blamed and it wasn’t just politics. It was a reason people felt they had to put this burden on me so they felt safer. And I couldn’t justify or understand how I can move on when that was actually my reality. So I felt very alone in the journey, even with my loving friends and family around me because they didn’t understand either. Everyone wanted me to just be better and be the Ginny Buckingham they always knew, successful and strong. And I just wasn’t that person anymore.
00:42:58.00 Andy Coulson:
So these people are saying these kind words to you. You’re saying thank you and nodding and probably smiling but inside your head you’re screaming, ‘you just don’t get it’.
00:43:08.18 Virginia Buckingham:
Yeah, the only one I screamed at was my dear husband.
00:43:13.03 Andy Coulson:
So you actually screamed at him?
00:43:15.06 Virginia Buckingham:
Oh with him I was just like, ‘it isn’t just politics I was blamed’ and we had this argument over and over and over again. And ultimately he got it, it took a while but ultimately he understood. And honestly, it wasn’t until the book came out that I think that most people understood then. The passage of time I think allowed that to happen, broader context, all of those things. But I was alone in it for quite a while.
00:43:44.17 Andy Coulson:
But that’s the truth of trauma, isn’t it? That it is, by its nature, terribly lonely.
00:43:52.10 Virginia Buckingham:
Yes, yes. And that compassion goes a long way and if you know someone who’s suffering trauma or in the middle of a crisis, just listen, just be there, don’t try to explain it away. That doesn’t help.
00:44:12.19 Andy Coulson:
Ginny, you struck up a close and very significant relationship with Anne MacFarlane the mother of a 9/11 victim, Marianne, who worked for United Airlines. When did you first meet? Tell us about that, tell us about your relationship.
00:44:28.10 Virginia Buckingham:
Everyone should have an Anne MacFarlane in their life. I wish everyone did. She is a fiery Boston-Irish lady whose daughter was her best friend. She, Anne, also worked at the airport, she actually worked for Massport but I didn’t know her then, she was in customer service. And when I learned that her daughter had died on one of the planes I knew I needed and wanted to go to her memorial service which was just a week or so after 9/11 but right in the midst of this media firestorm.
00:45:03.09 Virginia Buckingham:
And as I was waiting in a line that went around the block from the church, I could hear the whispers of people, kind of see the finger pointing, and I didn’t know how Anne would react to having me there. I didn’t know if she blamed me, I didn’t know if she’d be angry. So I was fearful, I was fearful. And I entered the back of the church and she was at the end of a long line and I’ll never forget this moment she… not very tall, she’s probably 5’ 3” or something like that and she had a pin of an airplane on her lapel. And she took both of my hands in hers and she said, ‘Do not let them tear down our airport, tear our airport apart, promise me.’ Her love of aviation, her daughter’s love of aviation was something that they both embraced and it was so meaningful to them. And that she could see outside of her own pain and have that perspective just blew me away. Blew me away.
00:46:07.21 Andy Coulson:
And you became friends?
00:46:11.05 Virginia Buckingham:
So I know now why I did it at the time, I don’t think I was clear, but I reached out to her the following June, so June 2002 and said ‘I don’t know if you remember me but I wondered if you would meet for coffee’. Because I wanted to ask a family member directly if they blamed me. And I also wanted to mourn for someone directly. You know, I didn’t know anyone personally that died on 9/11, thankfully, but I felt such pain and such trauma that I wanted to just be part of someone else’s grief.
00:46:46.06 Virginia Buckingham:
And so we met for coffee at this little coffee shop and she brought me a mass card so I could her daughter’s picture and she had a pendant around her neck with her daughter’s picture in it. She gave me a teddy year that NASA had given her, they sent a bunch of flags up to space, to the space station in honour of all the victims, so she gave me some of those memorabilia. And finally, after talking for a while, I just asked her straight out, ‘Do you blame me for what happened to your daughter?’ And she was so taken aback. She said, ‘You’re no more to blame than Marianne is.’ And then because she’s a strong person, she was like, ‘So what are you gonna do now? What’s the rest of your life look like?’ And I said, you know, ‘I’m trying to write my story, I’ll try to move forward.’ And she said, ‘Do it, live your life in Marianne’s name.’ It was the biggest gift I’ve ever received.
00:47:48.20 Andy Coulson:
I was going to ask you how important a moment was that, in the moment, and how important has it become to you?
00:47:56.02 Virginia Buckingham:
It’s remained my life raft and incredibly, I think I’ve become somewhat of a life raft for her as well. A couple of years later they finally found some remains of Marianne. And it happened to be on the day that I gave testimony before the 9/11 Commission investigators which was very difficult and brutal. And I went back to my office at the newspaper and the phone rang and I picked it up and it was Anne MacFarlane saying they found Marianne. And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘They found some remains, I don’t know how much but all this time I thought she had amnesia and was just going to walk in the door one day. I’m going to need to lean on you now.’ And I think that friendship has sustained her in some way as well, and I’m really grateful for that.
00:48:50.01 Andy Coulson:
Ginny, the court cases eventually end, or are ended with no blame attached. And the official 9/11 Commission concludes that you did nothing wrong. That Logan was chosen by the terrorists for its location and not because of any particular weaknesses or political connections or whatever it is as you touched on earlier. Tell us about that day when you finally learn that the official decision has been made and you are exonerated.
00:49:26.07 Virginia Buckingham:
I was in such a strange position because I was working at the newspaper and covering the release of the 9/11 Commission report from an editorial perspective. And so it had this dichotomy of this is it, well if they say it’s Logan then it’s Logan and there’s no changing that. And if they don’t then that will also be enormously powerful. But they didn’t say anything about it in the press conference. So I watched the whole press conference, nothing said about Logan at all.
00:49:59.06 Virginia Buckingham:
I went immediately to the bookstore and I don’t know if you remember, but that the time they sent this report in book form to stores all over the country and world and they couldn’t be opened until after the press conference. So I went and bought the first one that I could. Flipped through the whole thing, couldn’t see anything about Logan Airport. My name’s not even in it. That’s also something that I’ve tried to absorb, that despite being at the centre of this storm I’m not even mentioned in there, i.e. I’d had nothing to do with it in reality.
00:50:31.23 Virginia Buckingham:
But when I did testify before the 9/11 investigators I asked them, even though my lawyer told me not to, I asked them point blank ‘if you find that Logan Airport is not to blame for this will you please say so, not just for me but for all the thousands of people who work at Logan Airport’. And as I turned to the back where the footnotes were, thousands of footnotes, the very first one said that Logan Airport had no different security at the level that mattered which was the checkpoint gates and that the planes were likely chosen for logistical reasons.
00:51:15.08 Virginia Buckingham:
So there it was, there it was in black and white. I wish I felt relief, I wish that at that moment I felt some big weight lifted. It was, maybe it’s embarrassing to admit, but I only felt anger. I was so angry and so full of despair. Why then did I have to go through this? Why did I have to lose my whole career? Why did I have to be blamed if it wasn’t even remotely true? And I had to let that go too, you can’t dwell on anger and despair either. But I did… poor David, again, got the brunt of a lot of yelling.
00:52:04.02 Andy Coulson:
So anger is the predominant emotion in your mind at that point? No relief?
00:52:16.07 Virginia Buckingham:
Not at that point. Certainly it’s been incredibly important to me in the years following that the official word said it wasn’t Logan. Although, I have to say, it’s taken me a long time to understand this, but my therapist at the time, who was incredibly helpful during this whole journey said, ‘You know they could come out the other way and they could say it was Logan and that doesn’t make it true, it doesn’t make it true. And you’re going to have to, no matter what they say, hold onto what you know is true and not rely on some official word.’ And she was right, I’m a grateful I didn’t have to grapple with that being the reality.
00:53:03.22 Andy Coulson:
How did you feel about some of the individuals involved can I ask? Because you, some bitterness would have been justified. Jane Swift, who I think was the governor at the time when you left the job, that conversation that you described earlier about the… or the political positioning that you described earlier, I should say, how did you feel about her once you were cleared?
00:53:35.01 Virginia Buckingham:
I mean, I try not to dwell in bitterness at all because again, it doesn’t serve me. I’m not saying I’m a superhero who doesn’t feel bitter, of course I do. But I just try not to stay there when I feel that way. I try to look at it that she was a young, inexperienced leader, who was faced with an unfathomable tragedy and she was not able to rise to the occasion of the ownership that was required and leave it at that and try to take whatever lessons I can about being a leader on board.
00:54:10.02 Andy Coulson:
Have you ever seen her again? Have you met, have you been in the same room?
00:54:13.00 Virginia Buckingham:
00:54:14.24 Andy Coulson:
How do you, what’s your technique for avoiding the bitterness pit when you can see it coming, or if you find yourself standing in it occasionally? What’s the technique do you use to kind of get yourself out and on?
00:54:31.05 Virginia Buckingham:
I’m new to it but I’ve been trying to practice gratitude. You know and they say that if you think of three things you’re grateful for it actually impacts your brain, that the way your brain operates is changed. So I try to go to gratitude as quickly as I can.
00:54:51.05 Andy Coulson:
How have you come though, to reconcile the blame more generally, Ginny? How have you got that, if you like, into the right place? I mean, you mentioned counselling there, has that been a fundamental part of your recovery?
00:55:12.13 Virginia Buckingham:
Yes, so my therapist is actually a sexual crisis counsellor, so something totally different, but as she knows and has taught me all trauma’s the same, whatever its source, its impact is the same. And the most important thing that she helped me finally realise is that you have to hold onto what you know is true. And deep down, inside, I now know that I did not do anything wrong, that day or before that day, there was nothing I could have done to change what had happened that day, as much as I wish there was. I think I always had that truth but I couldn’t find it because the noise in the voices of blame were so, so loud.
00:55:54.20 Virginia Buckingham:
And I hope that with telling my story, that the culture of blame and the destructiveness of blame is shown in the spotlight and perhaps will change somebody’s point of view, when either as a citizen or as a leader, I hope that people, in particular women, hold onto their truth when they know what they know inside, hold onto it no matter what the voices around you are saying, you know, be your own hero. I looked and looked and looked for someone to be my hero, I wanted, whether it was the 9/11 Commission or President Bush or the front page of the Boston Globe, to say ‘whoops, sorry we were wrong, not your fault’.
00:56:41.17 Virginia Buckingham:
That never happened, that never happened. And I’ve come to see that even if it did happen, unless I held onto it myself and believed in myself, that that was the most important thing. So holding onto that, being your own hero is something I try to put out in the world and hope it helps other people.
00:57:03.13 Andy Coulson:
Which I think is a wonderful endeavour. We touched on it at the start of the conversation though, the world is not moving in that direction, is it? How do we begin to solve this? Because in the end it is a dilemma for leaders first and foremost, would you agree?
00:57:21.14 Virginia Buckingham:
I completely agree, because it’s up to them to lead the way and listen with empathy and an open heart and an open mind. And the politics in the US, and I know it’s not very different there, it’s like as bad as it could get. There is no one truth that everyone can even accept as something to start from, in terms of where we have our conversations. So what’s the answer? Beats me, but keep doing our part, that’s all we can do. We’re individual people. I do some TV, I do some talking, some other writing. I’m just trying to do my part and hope it matters somehow.
00:58:07.20 Andy Coulson:
Would you ever work in politics again?
00:58:10.23 Virginia Buckingham:
00:58:12.19 Andy Coulson:
That’s a fast answer, Ginny.
00:58:17.00 Virginia Buckingham:
Well first and foremost it’s a young person’s game in my opinion. I mean, I worked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and I don’t want to do that anymore, that’s for sure. I want to be engaged; I want my kids to be engaged. I want to write about it, I want to think about it, talk about it but work at it? No thank you.
00:58:37.03 Andy Coulson:
Is there not part of you, though, that thinks if I was now back in one of my old jobs, either as a chief of staff, well let’s say as a chief of staff, I would be in that room, right? When the leader has a choice between sticking the blame on someone or not. Or using blame to be able to, as you put it, control the uncontrollable. You’d be there, there’s an argument isn’t there, that you’d have more influence potentially than…
00:59:08.07 Virginia Buckingham:
That’s true, sorry, so if I could work in the Whitehouse as chief of staff, sure. I’d go there. You know, I’d have to think about who’s my dream audience if I could get invited to speak anywhere and it would be to a room of leaders. Whether governors, you know, all fifty governors of the United States, or CEOs of the top fifty companies in the world, I would love to have that kind of bigger impact with my story. So you know, I can keep dreaming of that.
00:59:37.23 Andy Coulson:
Okay, never say never then? We’ve moved from no to maybe there, Ginny.
00:59:43.24 Virginia Buckingham:
Oh I forgot about that; I was thinking of chief of staff in the Whitehouse.
00:59:48.13 Andy Coulson:
I just want to finish by talking a little about resilience because I was very taken by your effective definition of resilience in the book. You say ‘That happy endings are a comforting nonsense. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a good life. But you carry those difficult moments with you and that that in fact is the definition of resilience, moving forward with those problems not moving on.’ I thought that was fantastic. Is that how you feel now about your history, about your experiences, that they’re with you but you’ve just now learned how to keep moving forward with them?
01:00:31.19 Virginia Buckingham:
It’s a more realistic and true way of living, isn’t it? You know, we can’t just leave our pain in the past, especially traumatic pain, we do carry it with us. I use the metaphor of sea glass in my book because I felt for so long that I was failing at being resilient. And like everyone’s saying, ‘be strong’ and ‘move forward’ and ‘get over it’. And I felt so not strong in that until I thought about sea glass and how it starts off as something completely different, a full bottle or whatever, and is thrown into the sea and is tossed around in the tumult of the waves and the sand and the salts for years and years and years. Until it doesn’t resemble anything like it started yet it’s still incredibly beautiful, incredibly valuable, incredibly capable of bringing joy to those who find it resting in the sand. And to me that’s resilience. You’re something different, you’re changed forever yet you still are capable of beauty and joy.
01:01:37.17 Andy Coulson:
That’s wonderful. Ginny, thank you for telling us your story. Before we let you go, though, we’d like to ask you for your three crisis cures. These are three very specific things that you’ve leant on, used, deployed, to help get you through the difficult days. Only rule is it can’t be another person. I’m sure if it were you’d have chosen David. But let me ask you for your first crisis cure please.
01:02:08.01 Virginia Buckingham:
Make your home, or room in your home, a haven for you during crisis and as you’re healing. I have one little sitting room in the corner of my house that has my candles and my artwork and my books and that’s where I curl up in the corner and just take a breath and say ‘okay, go at this again tomorrow’.
01:02:30.07 Andy Coulson:
Wonderful, your second cure?
01:02:34.11 Virginia Buckingham:
Find a purpose outside of yourself in your current situation to devote yourself to. In my case I was very lucky that I had two little kids to devote myself to and take care of outside of what was happening in the rest of my life. But whether it’s parenting or taking care of your dog or your neighbour or doing something that’s outside of what’s happening to give some purpose and meaning to your day-to-day.
01:03:01.03 Andy Coulson:
Wonderful, and your last crisis cure?
01:03:05.01 Virginia Buckingham:
Do good with something bad. Do good with something bad. In my case I took my story and I put it in a book and I put it out in the world and gratefully it’s helping people. So don’t just let the bad things sit, take advantage of the crisis and do good with it.
01:03:24.13 Andy Coulson:
Wonderful, Ginny, we’re so glad that you did exactly that. Thank you for joining us today for this conversation which I think has been an incredibly useful one for anyone who’s trying to navigate their way through trauma. We wish you the very best for the future.
01:03:44.07 Virginia Buckingham:
Thank you Andy, thanks for having me, I enjoyed the conversation very much.
01:04:10.23 End of transcription