A View from the West Wing: Fil-Am White House Aide Susan Ralston

PILIPINAS Magazine 2.0
February 2004

Text and photo by Ted Regencia

WASHINGTON, D.C. — September 11, 2001, 6 a.m. The rest of United States was still in deep slumber while the other half of the world was getting ready for bed. But a few select men and women tasked to help run the most powerful country in the world, were already up and running in Washington D.C.

By now the White House was buzzing with politics and policy, a daily staple there.

In one corner at the second floor of the West Wing, Fil-Am and Chicago native Susan Bonzon Ralston, was gearing up for the day’s events, sifting through the many documents piling up on her desk. That day, Ralston’s boss senior political aide Karl Rove was traveling with President Bush to Florida. Except for the president’s trip and First Lady Laura Bush’s appearance in Capitol Hill, that clear mid-summer day was expected to be just another ho-hum 24 hours for “Bush 43” West Wingers.
Nothing prepared them for the approaching disaster that would turn their world upside down.

At around 8:45 a.m., hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston crashes into the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC).
Minutes later, the tragedy was flashed on TV screens. Ralston, her monitor tuned-in to Fox, was one of the firsts to witness it. Immediately, she alerted Rove by phone, giving him a blow-by-blow account of the air mishap. Ralston, however, observed how strange the circumstances behind the incident were.
As she continues to chat with Rove, a second hijacked airliner struck the South Tower. Right there and then, she knew it was no coincidence. America was under siege.

All hell broke loose.

“This could not be real,” Ralston recalled as telling a colleague. But it was a real West Wing moment not even an NBC series of the same name can closely approximate. Suddenly she was tossed into the eye of the storm.
In one blink, this mid-level Filipino American in the White House became a reluctant eyewitness to the unfolding of history.

Rove Deputy
As one of the deputies of Rove, arguably the closest and most influential aide to Bush, Ralston is assigned to coordinate public events involving the POTUS (President Of The United States). She is also involved with the long-term strategy and planning of Bush’s schedule and travels, including one the president made to the Philippines recently.
As a close and trusted aide to Rove, Ralston is designated of late, as a White House liaison to the Bush-Cheney 2004 re-election campaign, a first for a Filipino. It is “not unusual” then that she confers with senior government officials on a regular basis. But on that fateful day of September, her role took on a more profound significance.

As soon as it was determined that the twin incidents in New York were perpetrated by terrorists, then New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New York Governor George Pataki scrambled to get on the phone with the president. They quickly made contact with Ralston’s office, which maintains a secure and direct line to Rove and President Bush.
During these very tense moments, Ralston managed to keep her cool as she helped orchestrate the powwow between the highest officials of the land.

Even as she was fulfilling her responsibility to her country, Ralston also made sure she’s in constant communication with her family: Her mom and dad in Wilmette, Illinois and her husband at their Woodridge residence, 30 miles from D.C.
“My husband, while anxious, assured me that I would be out of harm’s way. New York is a safe distance from Washington.” Little did they know that at that very instance two more planes were barreling towards the capital, ready to hit its targets.
D.C. Under Siege
Indeed, at 9:43 a.m., one of the planes carrying 58 passengers and six crew members crashed into the Pentagon killing another 125 personnel inside the fortress of the Defense Department, just a few miles away from the presidential residence. It was now very clear: Nobody was safe anymore. With one more plane still unaccounted for and with reports saying that it was headed for the White House or the Capitol, the Secret Service concluded it’s time to evacuate.
The Secret Service first rushed Vice President Dick Cheney into a secured underground facility into the belly of the White House, while the rest including Ralston were hastily ushered into the mess hall, which is below ground level. “It was a very eerie scene. Everyone was very silent and tense,” Ralston said.
And it was not the end of it. Only a little later, they were ordered out of the White House compound. “We were told to run as fast as we could.”

Outside, everything became even more incomprehensible. “It was total chaos.” Like many, Ralston was cut off from the world. Phone lines were not working. Cell phones were jammed. Rumors spread that the Capitol was on fire and that Camp David, the president’s summer and weekend hideaway was under attack. All Ralston could hear are the sonic booms and the whizzing of fighter jets searching for hostile crafts.
It was Independence Day: The Movie minus the extraterrestrial invaders. The fog of war has descended over D.C.

It was only much later, when Ralston re-established communication with Rove who was in an undisclosed location with President Bush. She also learned of the horrifying collapse of the Twin Towers in New York, which killed thousands of innocent civilians, and the crash of a fourth plane in Pennsylvania.
As bedlam ensued, Ralston found herself wading through the crowd. She and hundreds of others were stuck near a bridge connecting D.C. and Virginia. Since she carpooled that morning, she was left with no choice but to do some hitchhiking. Albeit exhausted, Ralston realized on her walk home how the event transformed people. Complete strangers approached each other and even offered help. One motorist drove up to her and gave her a ride to the other side of the bridge, where she was reunited with her husband. She made it home at 2:30 p.m.
Amidst the demonstration of hate and terror, some “rare” and beautiful things happened along the way that day, Ralston recalled. 

Later in the afternoon, the president returned to the White House to address the country and the world.

Chicago native
In an interview last Fall, I asked her if her 9/11 experience two years ago made her wish she was doing something else instead of working at the White House.
This Fil-Am pride’s reply was, it only strengthened her “resolve” to serve her country even better. Now this daughter of two Filipino doctors from Quezon City in Metro Manila is ruling her West Wing desk, thirteen to fourteen hours a day, Monday to Friday, and on-call on weekends.

It’s not all work though, for this summa cum laude graduate of Chicago’s Loyola University. On weekends, away from the political chit-chat and Bush-bashing in Washington D.C., she manages to do some round of golf and running with her husband. Or reading at home. This homebody’s latest read is the controversial, The Da Vinci Code, a book, which re-examines the role of Mary Magdalene in the life of Jesus Christ.

So what makes this Asian woman stand out in her world populated by Republicans? Determination and hard work. That she is a brilliant head-turner doesn’t harm. Ralston also credits her Filipino character – being warm and hospitable – as part of her charm.
On her trip to Manila to coordinate Bush’s state visit, she also wowed her kababayans with her confidence and wit that landed her on the front-page of the widely-circulated national daily, Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Still, the question begs to be asked, why Republican? And why George W. Bush, the favorite target of anti-Iraq War opponents? To the first, she highlighted the Grand Old Party’s “conservative and family-oriented policies”, its anti-tax plank, its health care plan, its pro-life stance and its emphasis on “ownership society.” However, the Republican’s stand on one important issue dear to Filipinos, immigration, remains iffy at best. On the issue of Bush’s cowboy tendencies in dealing with world problems, Ralston said, “you don’t have to agree with every policy” the president makes, even as she emphasized that he is “a decisive president,” a man “full of integrity” and “down to earth.”
Ralston is equally protective of her boss Karl Rove’s reputation. On the claim that Karl Rove is the “real brain” of the second Bush White House, she said, “the president is a strong leader and he makes his own decisions. Karl is there to provide good advice. They are good friends.” “Karl is always portrayed as Machiavellian, but he is not all that.”
But whatever politics, an individual has, Ralston stressed, serving the public is an honorable profession. She encouraged young people from the minority population, especially Filipino-Americans to consider government as a career path. “We don’t have a lot of Asian people in politics. So go out and study government and politics, ” she said.

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