Ted Olson spent his 71st birthday Sunday at his family’s lakeside property in Northern Wisconsin. He was invited to ceremonies marking the anniversary of 9/11 but, after careful consideration, decided not to attend.
“I had to balance between my feeling that I should be at the Pentagon and participate in these public events of memory and remembrance,” he told us Friday. “On the other hand, I also felt it’s so powerfully overwhelming that the best thing I could do is to celebrate my birthday, remember Barbara’s death and celebrate the remainder of our lives with family members away from Washington, D.C.”
Ten years ago, Olson became the most famous person in D.C. to lose a loved one in the terrorist attacks: His wife, conservative commentator Barbara Olson, was on American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon. She had delayed a trip to California so she could be in town for his birthday dinner the night before.
Olson had recently been confirmed as the Bush administration’s top lawyer — solicitor general of the United States — and was nationally known as the man who successfully argued the controversial Bush v. Gore election case in front of the Supreme Court.
Before she died, Barbara placed two calls to her husband from the hijacked plane. The terrible news spread within minutes, and Olson immediately became Washington’s face of loss.
“When I appeared in public, I had to stress that I’m not unique . . . unfortunate, tragic things happen to all of us,” he said. “It’s very important to put that in perspective: You’re not the only one that has experienced a terrible tragedy, as thousands of other people did that day.”
Olson said he was determined not to be consumed by his sorrow. His mother, then 81 years old, told him: “Ted, you’ve got to get back on your feet and get out there. You’re a young man.” He went back to work the following Monday and argued his first case as solicitor general three weeks later.
Six months later, he was introduced to Lady Booth, a tax attorney from Chicago. The two began dating and quickly became serious. “I felt that some people would feel that I was moving too fast. Everyone has their own idea about how someone should cope and how much you engage in mourning. I believe Barbara — because she was so passionate about life — would have wanted me to live my life.”
The past decade has been filled with personal and professional highs: Since 2006, Olson has been happily married to Booth, his fourth wife. “It’s not easy all the time when people want to talk about Barbara, but [Booth has] been absolutely spectacular and inspirational.” He remained with the administration until 2004, then went into private practice and is considered one of America’s most influential lawyers. He teamed up with former rival David Boies to challenge a California ban on same-sex marriage and, earlier this year, was recognized with the American Bar Association’s highest honor.
On Friday, Olson delivered a speech about 9/11 at the Justice Department, then flew to Wisconsin to spend his birthday with his wife, mother, brother, sister and daughter. “It’s nice to be able to get away from this extraordinary, heavy, nonstop emotional binge taking place this weekend,” he said.
Wisconsin is also where Barbara is buried. It took three months to identify her remains, and he decided the family retreat would be her final resting place. Olson said he would spend Sunday surrounded by the people he loves best.
“Horrible things can happen to you, and horrible things happened to us on September 11,” he concluded. “But if we look for love and happiness and fulfillment, we will find it.”