Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign is belittling President Bush for his immediate reaction to the September 11 terrorist attacks, stepping up its response to recent criticism of Mr. Kerry’s conduct during the Vietnam War.

“John Kerry is not the type of leader who will sit and read ‘My Pet Goat’ to a group of second-graders while America is under attack,” said Kerry campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter, a reference to the book Mr. Bush continued reading with children for several minutes after his chief of staff informed him of the second World Trade Center plane attack.

In a short, prepared statement on Friday, responding to the furor about ads by Vietnam veterans that the Kerry team blames on Mr. Bush, Miss Cutter also ripped into White House spokesman Scott McClellan as out of touch and said he and the president were complicit in lying.

“John Kerry is a fighter, and he doesn’t tolerate lies from others,” she said. “Some day, Mr. McClellan and George Bush will have to face the truth about health care and economic issues facing this country. This election is about this country and its future. When Mr. McClellan realizes that, it will be too late.”

The line of attack about the children’s book could prove risky for the Kerry campaign, because it was started by polarizing liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, from whom the Kerry campaign and other Democrats in close races have tried to keep at least some distance.

The strategy could be particularly risky because, although Mr. Kerry was not reading a children’s book when the attacks occurred, he has admitted that he sat stunned and unable to think for more than 30 minutes in the Capitol until he and other senators were whisked out of the building to safety.

In an interview last month on “Larry King Live,” Mr. Kerry recalled walking into the office of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, and watching the second plane hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

“And we shortly thereafter sat down at the table, and then we just realized nobody could think,” Mr. Kerry recalled, “And then ‘Boom!’ Right behind us, we saw the cloud of explosion at the Pentagon.”

That was a span of roughly 35 minutes, according to precise timelines of the day.

By that time, Mr. Bush already had addressed the nation, vowed to capture those responsible and begun discussions with Vice President Dick Cheney and other top aides about whether to shoot down any civilian aircraft violating the administration’s order that all planes be grounded.

Miss Cutter’s prepared broadside at Mr. Bush on Friday is a departure, even in these times of shattering political volume.

It came after Mr. McClellan suggested that Mr. Kerry was “losing his cool,” in response to a question by a reporter about charges that the administration was behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth television ads.

“We’ve already said we weren’t involved in any way in these ads,” Mr. McClellan said Friday. “We’ve made that clear. I do think that Senator Kerry losing his cool should not be an excuse for him to lash out at the president with false and baseless attacks.”

Mr. Bush’s thought process during those several minutes was addressed in the recently released report by the September 11 commission.

“The president told us his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis,” the report said.

“The national press corps was standing behind the children in the classroom. He saw their phones and pagers start to ring. The president felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening.”

But it’s become a source of ridicule in some circles, most famously by Mr. Moore in his film, “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

The film shows the scene in a single unedited shot as Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. whispers to Mr. Bush that “the nation is under attack.”

During the scene, a voiceover by Mr. Moore says: “Mr. Bush just sat there and continued to read ‘My Pet Goat’ with the children. Nearly seven minutes passed with nobody doing anything.”

Since the movie’s release, “My Pet Goat” has become an anti-Bush call to arms, appearing on bumper stickers and inspiring a Web page of that name.

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