- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

PORTLAND, Ore. — The White House, irked by lingering questions about whether President Bush responded quickly enough to the September 11 terrorist attacks, yesterday slammed Sen. John Kerry for being bewildered by the attacks.

White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett took Mr. Kerry to task for questioning the president’s decision to remain in a Florida classroom for five minutes after learning of the attacks. He noted that the Massachusetts Democrat acknowledged last month that when the terrorists struck, Mr. Kerry was at a Democratic leadership meeting where “nobody could think.”

“It’s straining credibility for him to attack the president when he acknowledges the fact that he couldn’t think in those minutes after the attack,” Mr. Bartlett told The Washington Times at a Bush appearance here.

“This type of petty, armchair quarterbacking — three years after the event — demonstrates the lengths the senator will go in order to be president,” he said. “Do they really want to have this debate about 9/11? We’d love to have it.”

A Kerry campaign spokesman declined to comment on the broadside, which came less than 24 hours after Mr. Bush was asked on CNN’s “Larry King Live” to respond to Mr. Kerry’s critique of his September 11 performance.

“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,” Mr. Kerry said last week.

But last month, the senator acknowledged his own struggle to comprehend the enormity of the terrorist attacks. Mr. Kerry was attending a Democratic leadership meeting in the Capitol office of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota when two jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center in New York.

“We watched the second plane come into the building,” Mr. Kerry said on “Larry King Live.”

“And we shortly thereafter sat down at the table and then we just realized nobody could think, and then boom, right behind us, we saw the cloud of explosion at the Pentagon.

“And then word came from the White House they were evacuating, and we were to evacuate,” he added. “And so we immediately began the evacuation.”

By that time, Mr. Bush had been responding to the attacks for more than 20 minutes and had addressed the nation. Using the Florida school as a makeshift command post, Mr. Bush had telephoned Vice President Dick Cheney, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and New York Gov. George E. Pataki.

Also during those 20 minutes, the president consulted with Mr. Bartlett, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. Rejecting a statement they drafted for him, the president grabbed a pen and scrawled out his own statement on three sheets of paper.

On Thursday, the president defended himself against Mr. Kerry’s critique.

“I think it’s easy to second-guess,” he said. “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.”

After the second plane stuck the World Trade Center, Mr. Bush was given minimal information by Mr. Card, who whispered into his ear: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.”

The president had been told upon arrival at the school that a small, twin-engine plane accidentally had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.

“I couldn’t envision it,” he later told a Washington Times reporter who accompanied him to the school. “I could not envision what it meant to see an airplane fly into a building.”

He added: “But I wasn’t thinking about what it looked like. I was thinking about what the heck we were going to do. I’m an action-oriented guy. And I am thinking to myself: What is it I need to do?”

As for Mr. Kerry’s criticism, Mr. Bush was unapologetic about remaining in the classroom.

“I was collecting my thoughts,” he explained on CNN. “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.”

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