Why Jon Stewart Fought So Hard For 9/11 Responders

The former "Daily Show" host went to Capitol Hill twice to help the people who had risked their lives get access to health care. It left him disgusted.

24/12/2015 9:21 AM AEDT | Updated 24/12/2015 9:21 AM AEDT

WASHINGTON -- It was Sept. 16, just a few days after the 14th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. Over the previous five months, sick and dying 9/11 responders had visited lawmakers’ offices on Capitol Hill hundreds of times, trying to get the Zadroga Act renewed. They arrived in wheelchairs, lugging oxygen tanks or inhalers, and stayed in the sorts of hotels where they once found crime scene chalk still marking the floor. Each day, they covered as many as 13 miles in the corridors of power as they begged legislators not to leave them, their families and their fellow responders without the resources to deal with their illnesses.

The responders knew it would be a tough battle when they began it in April. It had, after all, taken them 128 trips to the Hill to get the original James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act passed in 2010.

During that struggle, John Feal, a construction worker who lost half his left foot to an 8,000-pound chunk of steel on The Pile that had been the World Trade Center, threatened to make the 230-mile trip from New York City to Washington, D.C., on his bloody stump to get lawmakers’ attention. Little did he know that he and his fellow responders would end up logging many more miles than that inside the Capitol, and that then-"Daily Show" host Jon Stewart would be so appalled by the situation that he would devote his entire final broadcast of 2010 to their plight. That’s why people like former police officer Kenny Anderson turned out this year, with his lung capacity at 30 percent. It’s why former firefighter Ray Pfeifer stepped up with stage 4 cancer that had cost him bones in his leg and rib cage.

But the second Zadroga Act hadn’t advanced, even after five months of responders trying to get lawmakers to see them and understand what their service had cost. Only one of four relevant committees gave it a single hearing. The police officers and firefighters and construction workers were sicker and more disheartened than they’d been in 2010 -- some 33,000 people had developed 9/11-related ailments, including at least 4,166 cases of cancer; more cops had died of illnesses linked to the attack than had perished in it -- and the bill was on verge of lapsing.

So when Stewart returned to D.C. that day to walk the halls with the responders, and again use his bully pulpit to shame lawmakers in a very public way for failing to reauthorize an act that had been underfunded in the first place, they were especially grateful. And when the law was finally renewed -- permanently extending health care benefits for the responders and adding five years to the victims’ compensation program -- on Friday, after lapsing in September, they were grateful, too. 

But the victory came at a cost. No one involved in the effort had thought too highly of Washington to begin with, but what Stewart and the responders saw and learned in the halls of Congress left them with the sense that the institution is even more deeply damaged than they had imagined.

Anthony Correia via Getty Images
An unidentified New York City firefighter walks away from Ground Zero after the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

One might think that a body of people who have pledged frequently to “never forget” the terrorist attacks, as nearly all members of Congress did on Sept. 11 this year, might reasonably be counted upon to help the never-to-be forgotten people who ran toward the flaming 1,300-foot skyscrapers in 2001. But this was, the responders learned, not the case.

“Every one of these people here wanted to put their arm around us and take a picture with us: ‘Hey, we were with a New York City fireman,’ or ‘Hey, we were with a New York City police officer,’ and use that whole slogan of 'we’ll never forget,'” said Jimmy Kadnar, a former firefighter and Marine. “Well, guess what? We’re no longer able to put your arm around our shoulders because guys are crawling to get down here with bad health. And [members of Congress] pretty much turned their back on us.”

Actual human suffering, they found, seemed to make absolutely no impression on lawmakers who were willing to engage with the responders at all.

“Somewhere along the line, members of Congress and the Senate must have to get into an empty room and be sprayed down with some sort of chemical [so] that they don’t have those human emotions any more,” said Feal, who captained the effort as head of his FealGood Foundation, the advocacy group he started after learning how hard it was to get help for his own 9/11-related injury.

“It looked to me like everybody we met down there was some version of the Terminator where, as they looked at you, there were calculations going on just beneath the surface of the cornea,” said Stewart, who, along with Feal and many of the others who lobbied for the bill, spoke to The Huffington Post at length. “They are mini election computers. And everything that they do, all the input that is going in, is calculating something’s effect."

It wasn’t that anyone on the Hill ever told them flat-out that their law was unimportant. But the way lawmakers and their staffers treated the responders made it clear, they say. Lawmakers who were reluctant to sponsor new legislation were even more reluctant to grant them appointments. Meetings were handled by the most junior staffers. Sometimes the responders were made to stand around in the hallways rather than being invited into legislators’ waiting rooms. When there were meetings, no one disputed the need for a new bill. But somehow an obstacle always arose. Most commonly, it was the question of how the new 9/11 legislation would be funded -- as if that was the responders' problem to solve, rather than the responsibility of the people who write the laws.

Nevertheless, the responders and their allies did have some suggestions. Former congressional staffers -- Renew 9/11 Health's Ben Chevat from Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s office and Global Strategy Group’s Glen Caplin from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s office -- helped coordinate the visits to the lawmakers, and kept the responders up to speed on unspent streams of revenue.

The Huffington Post
Sen. Rob Portman discusses his resistance to sponsoring the 9/11 health and compensation bill, before agreeing to back it.

“We did our homework,” said Feal, who calls himself a “well-organized
person that hovers around room temperature in IQ.” But that didn’t solve the problem, either; Feal recalls that some staffers actually got angry when blue-collar men with New York accents started naming loopholes that could be closed or slush fund surpluses that could be tapped. Despite their professed support for the responders and their bill, the relevant lawmakers wanted to use those funds for things that mattered more to them -- a tax reform plan, biometric screening of immigrants and visitors, a favored research program. At one point, two committee chairs proposed their own temporary 9/11 bills that would have left the health and compensation programs dramatically underfunded, but paid for their own priorities.

Even when the 9/11 legislation was attached to the giant, must-pass end-of-year omnibus spending bill, lawmakers kept proving how differently they saw the world. In the final days of the struggle, one of the politicians who had a say in the matter had heard that Stewart and the responders were discouraged by seeing a lawmaker try to use their legislation as leverage to pass an oil export bill and another try to extract Medicare cuts.

The official called Stewart to ask why. 

“They’re disheartened because they’ve spent years roaming the hallways of this place to fight for something that they shouldn’t have to be the advocates for,” Stewart recounted saying. “The guy goes, ‘Well, I understand, but you know, that’s how the sausage gets made.’ And I said, ‘But here’s what you’re forgetting: They don’t know they’re sausage. They’re people.'”

People like Pfeifer, who, during the course of the responders’ efforts, went from walking with assistance to using a motorized wheelchair. He put his chair on the highest speed setting so he could get in front of one reluctant lawmaker, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who he had spotted in the Capitol basement. The rest of the group caught up, as did Stewart and the cameras, and the impromptu meeting paid off: Portman backed the bill that night, after being filmed discussing why he wanted the responders to find their own pay-fors for the $8.1 billion 9/11 bill while he simultaneously backed deficit spending for a $620 billion tax-break bill.

Pfeifer is one of the few whose faith in his fellow humans seems to have been left somewhat intact.

“That is the toughest thing to sit through,” Stewart said. “He’s a man of such grace. His ability to remain hopeful and gracious -- and I think truly feels like, ‘These are good people. I want to give them the chance to be the good people that I think they can be.’ And he makes his pitch and he doesn’t do it with bitterness. He should be above them.”

Michael McAuliff
Jon Stewart traveled to Washington for the second time to lobby for the 9/11 bill in December, seen here outside the Russell Senate Office Building.

“I don’t have the depth of character that these guys have,” Stewart added. “As I said to one of the people down there, all I have is a camera and an inherent sense of dickishness. If that can be useful in any way, I’m honored that that monkey trick can get them some attention.”

But Stewart is also clearly angry and revolted that such a thing should be necessary -- as are most of the people he came to Washington to help.

“The whole process is not only strange, but it’s sad. It’s disgusting,” Feal said. “It was dirty -- [the legislators] were stained.” 

“My son was contemplating going into the military, and I had to talk to him a little bit,” Kadnar said. “From the experience from here, I truthfully don’t think that the people on this Hill, the elected officials, have the back of our armed services, have the back, in this case, of the first responders.”

But even knowing what he does, Kadnar said he wouldn't tell his son to shun service.

“I think everybody here, right now, God forbid that happened right here right now, if they blew up a bomb somewhere in one of these buildings, as much as we’re all struggling, on inhalers and what not, we would stop immediately and tend to it,” he said, his eyes welling. “It’s just the way you’re born, it’s the way we’re programed.”

Even after the legislation was attached to the omnibus bill, with its unpaid-for tax cuts, and responders were told it was all-but-sure to pass, they got no relief from their anxiety. White House officials became concerned on Thursday about an incipient rebellion by Democrats who were angry about the cuts, the oil export measure and a failure to help Puerto Rico with its debt crisis. Representatives of the administration were dispatched to keep Democrats in line.

And Feal was asked to start walking again. Could he talk to the New Yorkers? He did, and he again encountered that same calculating, frightened look he’d become so used to over the years. Several staffers declined to offer assurances about the bill, although the following day their bosses would vote for it. Feal had told them the 9/11 responders would remember, and the lawmakers knew, that unlike politicians, it was true when responders said they would never forget.

Feal also had one other task last Thursday -- to thank Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for his efforts in helping the law get through, even though most of the responders blamed the leader for preventing it from passing sooner. His foot ached, and he took a cab over from the House office buildings to the Russell Senate Office Building, where McConnell has his personal office. Along the way, Feal got several emails and texts asking about Pfeifer, who was back in a cancer treatment center in New York. (Pfeifer had texted HuffPost when he went in, saying he was “sick as a dog lol.”) Everybody wanted to know how the former firefighter was doing. The answer was not good. He was deciding whether to have his leg opened up and rebuilt again to stop fresh cancer, and what to do about a new lesion on his brain.

“Those are the decisions this guy had to make while also trying to figure out how to get to Washington to try and catch a guy in a hallway to say, ‘Hey, what’s with you?’” Stewart said. “He spent time, when time is like it is in his life. Think about how precious that is for him, each moment, and he decided to use those moments to help other people, like he’s been doing his whole life.”

Michael McAuliff
Mitch McConnell answered a question about 9/11 on his last news conference of the year.

On Friday, when the omnibus bill passed with their legislation in it, many of the responders were watching from the Senate and House visitor galleries -- but there was none of the forbidden cheering that had erupted five years earlier.

“It was a numbing experience. Everybody was just dead silent,” said Richard Harmon, a Verizon worker who dug through tunnels to reconnect the financial district and suffered a rare thyroid cancer. He, like the others, were just relieved to be done. “I can go home now, and be with my family, and live out the life that God wants me to,” he said. He and the others had spent more than two months traveling to the Hill.

At a press conference about an hour after the bill passed, McConnell was asked what, if anything, he could do to fix a process that requires even terminally ill people who had rushed to heal the wound inflicted by the worst terrorist act on American soil to repeatedly, relentlessly make the case that they and their comrades deserve some help dealing with the consequences of their patriotism.

“Well, it was supported by everyone and it got passed,” McConnell said of the bill. “I’m sorry people were anxious about it.”

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