Barbara Bracher Olson was a warrior. She refused to be a noncombatant or AWOL in the culture wars — the crucial domestic conflict of the ’90s — which she helped found this organization to fight. We fight a new kind of war, and it’s a cruel and tragic twist of fate that Barbara Olson was one of its first casualties, lost when terrorists flew the plane on which she was traveling into the Pentagon.
When I first met Barbara, she was a recent graduate of the Benjamin Cardozo Law School working at the Reagan Justice Department. Smart, ambitious, beautiful, conservative, she wanted no part of either the agenda or the message of the organizations that purported in those days to speak for American women.
Indeed, Barbara was the embodiment of why we started IWF: to give voice to independent, articulate, knowledgeable women who were secure in their femininity and who had the courage to challenge conventional wisdom and bring common sense to bear on issues of importance to women and to men. We sought to change the terms of the debate, and nobody was better at it than Barbara.
It was just ten years ago when Barbara Bracher appeared at the Russell Senate Office Building late one night as we prepared to testify on behalf of Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court. As was typical of Barbara, she didn’t wait to be asked or given an assignment. She just wanted to join the fight.
In those days, Barbara and I used to talk a lot about her plans for the future. I remember thinking: This is a woman who wants to make a difference; this is a woman who wants to do it all; this is a woman who is not very realistic. But what I have since come to appreciate is that she was incredibly efficient and virtually indefatigable. In the years that I knew her, through all of the battles, I never heard her say that she was tired. Ever. She did do it all and she did it so well.
For starters, she was a very good lawyer. When she worked in the U.S. Attorney’s office, she was smart and without fear, even when she was up against much more seasoned and experienced opposing counsel, whom she bested with embarrassing regularity. But as good as she was at lawyering, her real passions were politics and policy.
She went up to Capitol Hill where she indeed made a difference as Chief Investigative Counsel for the congressional committee that investigated Travelgate and other Clinton administration scandals. Barbara, as we were all to find out, was a natural for TV. She became a regular on FOX, CNN, MSNBC — a battleground where she was incredibly effective as a legal analyst and commentator. She disarmed her opponents with her dazzling smile and her great sense of humor. Never strident, she cheerfully and goodnaturedly skewered them with facts, logic, and just plain common sense.
I remember one night during the presidential election controversy when Barbara was debating Alan Dershowitz. Barbara made a legal argument and Dershowitz started to filibuster and sputter and ended up saying, “Your husband, Ted Olson, wouldn’t even make that argument.” Barbara flashed that wonderful smile and said, “I’m surprised at you, Alan. What a sexist thing for a liberal like you to say.”
Like any professional woman worth her salt, Barbara expected to be taken seriously in her own right. We all thought it was pretty amusing when people started introducing the Solicitor General as Barbara Olson’s husband. So did Ted.
One day Barbara called me to say that she had gotten a book contract, and I remember thinking, “Does she have any idea how hard it is to write a book?” Not for Barbara. That book, Hell To Pay: The Unfolding Story of Hillary Rodham Clinton, was a best seller.
Her second book, The Final Days: The Last, Desperate Abuses of Power by the Clinton White House, published after her death by Regnery, hit the bookstores and immediately shot to the top of the best-seller lists. She wrote this book at the same time she was establishing herself as a lobbyist and lawyer and continuing her almost nightly TV appearances.
Since Barbara’s death, many tears have been shed and many wonderful times remembered because Barbara was very good at creating wonderful times for family and friends. Barbara’s life was all too short, but she packed more into her 45 years than most people do who get to live four score and ten. And she lived it her way with courage and smarts, with verve and style, with humor and principle. She was passionate about freedom and its foundation in the rule of law.
She was passionate about her country, her family, her friends, and her beloved husband, Ted. Barbara Olson made a difference. The life that she led is the legacy that she leaves for the young women who come after her. To that end, her family has established a memorial scholarship at her alma mater, Benjamin Cardozo Law School, to support the women who share Barbara’s ideals and principles in their legal careers.
The Independent Women’s Forum is proud to be a part of Barbara’s legacy. We are going to continue to fight the good fight on the airwaves, in the law schools, on college campuses, and in the halls of Congress to give voice to women like Barbara. I think she would have liked that.
R. Gaull ‘Ricky’ Silberman is Chairman of the Board of the Independent Women’s Forum. These remarks were delivered at the IWF panel “Women Facing War” on October 17.