Without Answers, A Brand-New Governor Worked To Lead


Sept. 9, 2011

Massachusetts Acting Gov. Jane Swift goes over her notes before on address on security delivered from the State House in Boston, on Oct. 2, 2001. (AP)

WILLIAMSTOWN — On September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush was less than a year into his term. The acting governor of Massachusetts, Jane Swift, had barely started hers. 

Just five months earlier, a very pregnant Swift took over the corner office from Republican Governor Paul Celluci, who had resigned to become the ambassador to Canada. 

She was the first female governor of the commonwealth and, a month later, she became the first sitting governor in history to give birth while in office.

She executed her constitutional responsibilities while on maternity leave, and was away from Boston during much of the summer.  She had decided in September that she would be ready to spend a night apart from her newborn twins.

September 11 would be her first night away from them.

That morning, Swift was jogging around her family farm in Western Massachusetts, trying to get back in shape for the public eye.

“It was just the perfect day," she said. "The babies must have slept well because I remember being in the best mood, and when I came back into the house to jump into the shower quick, my husband had told me the office had called and I needed to call them right away.”

The news she received was shocking: The first plane had hit the World Trade Center. 

Soon enough, there was more news. Worse news.

Swift says a police car picked her up to take her to the emergency bunker in Framingham. “There wasn’t a lot I could do in that car. We had to get to where we were going. And I tried to just sort of think to myself, ‘What is it that a governor is called upon to do?’" Swift said. "And there was nothing in my experience to really help me figure it out.” 

So Swift said a prayer. “I’m not one who wears their religion on their sleeve, but somehow (I prayed) I would get some kind of strength and insight to know what I needed to do on what was turning out to be a terrible day,” Swift said.  

Once she got to the bunker, her public security advisers told her that there were already emergency response plans in place and there wasn’t much she needed to add, with one exception.

A special election to replace former Congressman Joe Moakley was supposed to go forward that day. Secretary of State William Galvin wanted to postpone the election, but Swift was convinced polling should continue. Swift says she got into a heated debate with Galvin over the phone over who had the authority to make the call. 

Eventually, she says, the attorney general stepped in. “Attorney General Riley said to me, ‘You’re the governor. You tell them we’re going to keep the election. And if anybody goes to court, I’ll defend you,’” Swift said.

Swift went on television that afternoon to persuade people to vote. She said shutting down the polls would send the wrong message. “We will not bend to the terror that has been inflicted on our citizens and our nation. And we will not shut down democratic exercises of government,” Swift said during the conference.  

Swift says she tried to sound forceful and reassuring in her speech. But she confides that she was nervous.   

“I have never felt less confident and less secure going into a press event. I was certain people were going to ask questions I had no ability to answer,” Swift said.  

But Swift says she basically repeated word for word what the public safety officials told her in the emergency bunker.

“Ironically, I think it turned out to be one of my better moments in office. And to this day I’m torn," Swift said. "I don’t think I was as good as some pundits later gave me credit for. As much as people wanted me to be good, and they saw what they wanted and I was adequate.”  

In the end, residents heeded Swift’s call and went to the polls. The voter turnout was 32 percent, far higher than the typical turnout for a rare special election.  

The special election aside, Swift says her biggest decisions regarding Sept. 11 didn’t come on the day of, but in the days and weeks that followed.   

Massachusetts was thrust into the national spotlight when it was learned that two of the hijackers took off from Boston’s Logan Airport. Swift says her administration had to quickly address airport security, including instituting new safety protocols at Logan and reforming a culture of patronage at Massport, the agency that oversees the airport.   

But Swift now wonders whether the intense focus on public safety and terrorism blinded her to the fiscal crisis about to occur. Tourism in Massachusetts plummeted in the wake of the Sept. 11attacks, and the stock market foundered, launching the state into a recession. Swift says one of her biggest regrets from that period is that she wasn’t more prepared.

“It should have been clearer to us early on the multitude of fiscal issues that would be compounded because of this. So perhaps I wish I had at the right time, obviously not in the first couple of days, made sure to better educate the public and therefore influence some of my legislative colleagues about the necessity for belt tightening pretty quickly because of what was going to ensue,” Swift said.

Acting Governor Jane Swift’s approval ratings, which soared after Sept. 11, took a nose dive as the economy worsened. Critics charged her with having a tin ear and her own Republican party forced her to abandon an election bid and step aside for venture capitalist Mitt Romney.  

Today, when Swift looks back on September 11, 2001, she keeps returning to one detail: The beautiful weather on her early morning jog.  

“I was running and I felt good and it was a gorgeous day, and if I had known to look up I could have probably seen the plane. Not that you would have known, but that sticks with me," Swift said. "To think that at one level you could have that joy and happiness while evil was occurring not very far away is still something that’s hard for me to process.”   

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