WASHINGTON -- Senator John F. Kerry led a chorus of top Democrats yesterday in condemning White House political chief Karl Rove for saying that political liberals wanted to ''prepare indictments and offer therapy" to terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. The Democrats urged President Bush to fire Rove if he refuses to apologize.
Kerry called Rove's comments ''disgraceful" and said Rove's speech Wednesday to a gathering of New York conservatives a few miles from the site of the former World Trade Center disrespected Democrats and the nation, which rallied behind Bush following the 2001 attacks.
''That spirit of our country should never be reduced to a cheap, divisive, political applause line from anyone who speaks for the president of the United States," said Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, in a speech on the Senate floor. ''It is really hard to believe that last night in New York, a senior adviser -- the most senior adviser to the president of the United States -- is twisting, purposely twisting those days of unity in order to divide us for political gain."
Rove, the keynote speaker at a Conservative Party of New York State dinner, told his audience that ''perhaps the most important difference between conservatives and liberals can be found in the area of national security. Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers."
Rove is Bush's longtime campaign strategist and closest political aide; the president has referred to him as the architect of his reelection victory over Kerry last year.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush wouldn't ask Rove to apologize. McClellan said Rove was referring to people who have sought to fight terrorism with the law instead of by war, though he declined to name anyone specifically.
''There are many who have looked at the war on terrorism and said it is a law enforcement matter, that we should prosecute people," McClellan said. ''The president recognizes that it is a war and that we must stay on the offensive, we must take the fight to the enemy."
In an interview yesterday with CNN, Vice President Dick Cheney said he hadn't seen or read Rove's speech, but he defended the idea that ''there was a distinction" between what the left and the right considered the best response to the terror attacks.
''One is sort of a crime-solving approach, a law enforcement approach, and the other is a national strategy, military, intelligence, wartime approach," Cheney said. ''And I think that the history clearly demonstrates that there were different approaches prior to 9/11 and after 9/11" by the two sides.
Rove's comments drew harsh criticism from leading political voices. Less than a week ago, in a speech on the Senate floor, the Senate's number two Democrat, minority whip Richard J. Durbin, equated US soldiers' treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to actions by Nazis.
Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, apologized Tuesday, after stern rebukes from the White House as well as a wide range of Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators. Rove's speech continued the assault on Durbin: ''No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals."
With the dust-up over Durbin's comments in mind, Democrats piled on Rove yesterday. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, noted that just after the Sept. 11 attacks, only one of the 535 members of Congress voted against authorizing military action in Afghanistan.
''I guess Karl Rove has decided to move to center stage in the theater of the absurd," Pelosi said. ''For him to try to exploit 9/11 for political purposes once again just shows you how desperate [the Republicans] are."
The office of Senate minority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, issued a compendium of recent quotes from Republicans, titled ''Here we go again." The list included Rove's remarks as well as those of Senator Rick Santorum comparing Democrats' defense of the filibuster to actions by Hitler, and remarks from Representative John N. Hostettler this week saying that Democrats were drawn to ''denigrating and demonizing Christians" like a ''moth to a flame."