- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

LOS ANGELES — President Bush yesterday defended his decision to wait five minutes before leaving a Florida classroom upon learning of the September 11 terrorist attacks, a move that was criticized last week by Sen. John Kerry.

“I think it’s easy to second-guess,” Mr. Bush said on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” “What’s important is how I reacted when I realized America was under attack.

“It didn’t take me long to figure out we were at war,” he added. “It didn’t take me long to develop a plan that we would go after al Qaeda. We went into action very quickly.”

On the morning of September 11, Mr. Bush was in a second-grade classroom in Sarasota, Fla., listening to students read. After being told by White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. that a second jetliner had struck the World Trade Center, the president opted to let the children finish the lesson before excusing himself.

The move was criticized by liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, whose movie “Fahrenheit 9/11” erroneously accused the president of remaining seven minutes. Last week, Mr. Kerry echoed Mr. Moore’s criticism.

“Had I been reading to children and had my top aide whisper in my ear, ‘America is under attack,’ I would have told those kids very politely and nicely that the president of the United States had something that he needed to attend to, and I would have attended to it,” he said.

Mr. Bush fired back last night.

“I was collecting my thoughts,” he explained. “I was sitting with a bunch of young kids, and I made the decision there that we would let this part of the program finish, and then I would calmly stand up and thank the teacher and thank the children and go take care of business.”

The president also commented on the closeness of the presidential campaign, suggesting he expects to pull ahead of Mr. Kerry in the fall.

“Give us a chance to kick down the stretch — it really is early,” Mr. Bush said. “A lot of folks are vacationing and they will start to focus again.”

He added: “I think there are some people that can be persuaded to change their opinion. I don’t know if it’s going to be close or not. I believe I’m going to win.”

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