JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Challenging President Bush's "maturity" as a wartime leader, Democratic nominee John F. Kerry said yesterday that he would have excused himself from the Florida classroom on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, where Bush continued reading to children after learning about the attacks on the Twin Towers.
Kerry, responding to a question at a journalists' conference, seized on one of the most controversial images of Sept. 11 for many liberals and Democrats -- Bush reading "My Pet Goat" for seven minutes as the terrorist attacks were underway -- as part of a broader attack on Bush as out of his depth on even the simplest matters of military decision-making. Kerry said his "rare" background as a candidate who fought in Vietnam -- and who understands not only the concerns of US soldiers and their families, but also the loss of Americans' faith in war -- made him better suited than Bush to lead the nation in an age of terrorism.
"Had I been reading to children and had my top aide whispered into my ear, 'America was under attack,' I would have told those kids very politely and nicely that, the president of the United States had something he needed to attend to," Kerry said, citing the photographs of White House chief of staff Andrew Card whispering to Bush about the Sept. 11 attacks and then Bush reading the picture book for several minutes.
Kerry argued that Bush "fails" the test of managing the Iraq conflict because he did not work harder for a diplomatic alternative to war in March 2003.
"Americans want to know that the person they choose as president has all the skills and ability, all of the mental toughness, all of the gut instinct necessary to be a strong commander in chief," Kerry told the UNITY conference of minority journalists in Washington yesterday morning. "I'm asking you to trust our nation, our history, the world, your families, in my hands. . . . It's a tough judgment you have to make. But I believe in this case, there is a very clear choice."
Kerry, who hopes to turn Bush's handling of Iraq into a major issue in the race, faulted the president for rushing to war.
"We didn't have the patience, we didn't have the maturity, to exhaust the remedies available to us and truly build that coalition and understand the nature of the threat," Kerry said.
One of the president's chief surrogates on terrorism issues, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, hit back at Kerry on the Sept. 11 remarks. In addition, former Marine Corps commandant P.X. Kelley accused Kerry of "opportunism" in hammering Bush over the terrorist attacks.
In a statement, Giuliani linked Kerry's reference to the Florida classroom with filmmaker Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11," which used video footage from that morning to portray the president as clueless.
"John Kerry must be frustrated in his campaign if he is armchair-quarterbacking based on cues from Michael Moore," Giuliani said. "John Kerry is an indecisive candidate who has demonstrated an inconsistent position on the war on terror, who voted against funding for our troops at war, and who cannot give a clear answer on his position concerning the decision to remove Saddam Hussein."
That last shot, a frequent taunt from the Bush campaign to Kerry, came after the Democrat told the UNITY gathering that he "might" have gone to war if Hussein had refused to disarm.
"You bet we might have," Kerry said, adding that the result would not have cost as much in American casualties or taxpayers' money.
Kerry made his remarks about Iraq and national security after a short speech to the minority journalists that dwelled on issues of race and the economy. The Democrat described the nation as "still a house divided in health status, living standards, access to capital, [and] schools," and he promised to "lift up those who are left out."
He also pledged to appoint members to the Federal Communications Commission who would ensure that minority-owned businesses are "not consolidated into extinction," and to name Native Americans to "key positions in the White House and throughout my administration."
After a rally with running mate John Edwards in St. Louis yesterday, Kerry evoked the 1948 whistle-stop tour of Harry Truman as the current Democratic ticket (and the men's entourage and press corps) boarded a 15-car, three-engine train bedecked with US flags. The train rolled west to Jefferson City, passing a mix of supporters and abortion protesters in Washington, Mo.
Addressing the crowd, Kerry's wife, Teresa, took a swipe at the Bush administration. "You cannot solve problems by throwing stones, and you cannot solve problems by telling lies, and you cannot solve problems by wishing ill to other people," she said. "The only way you solve problems is by holding hands and talking about it, and that's what we want to do in this campaign."
Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com.