WASHINGTON – Christie Whitman was a woman of many moods Monday in her reluctant star turn on Capitol Hill.
She went from sad, to patient, to petulant, to forgetful to angry – and back again – in her 2 1/2 hours of high-heat grilling by the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties.
First she seemed sad, her lips turned down as the congressional panel accused her of lying about the air around Ground Zero.
Then the former Environmental Protection Agency head listened patiently as subcommittee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., accused the Bush administration of “false, misleading and inaccurate statements.”
She appeared uncomfortable, glancing down at her light-beige-and-white-striped jacket sleeve when Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., called her “dead wrong” for saying the air was safe around Ground Zero.
She managed a tight smile and shook her head when he said no such statements were “so damaging to the health of New York City” as hers.
A video of her reassurances about the safe air, now known to be tragically optimistic, brought only a few blinks by way of reaction.
Mostly, Whitman looked distressed that congressmen would question her actions in the grim days after Sept. 11, and branded much of the criticism “innuendo and outright falsehoods.”
She resorted to the time-honored, memory-challenged response of not recalling about a dozen times, but pegged most of her answers on others, often with lines like “the scientists were telling me it was safe.”
Whitman finally boiled over when Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., told her she was obfuscating by bringing up the danger faced by her own family to prove her actions were motivated only by concern.
“My son was in building seven that day,” Whitman nearly shouted, stabbing at her desk with her hands after Ellison asked if her calm statements might have been too broad.
“I have been called a liar, even in this room today,” she challenged.
She erupted again when pressed on why financial workers were sent back to Wall Street with toxic dust still on the ground, insisting the EPA cleared them because it was safe.
But her heated response revealed another, more patriotic motive – getting the stock market running.
“Safety was first and foremost, but we weren’t gonna let the terrorists win,” she declared to catcalls from a crowd of ailing Sept. 11 responders who have waited nearly six years to hear why she told them the air was safe.
Mostly those responders contained themselves. But Whitman’s praise of the city and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani was too much for them, bringing hisses and boos, forcing Nadler to gavel them to silence.