Thursday, August 5, 2004

Sen. John Kerry yesterday said he wouldn’t have stuck around to read to children after learning of the September 11 attacks, directly criticizing President Bush’s actions that day.

“First of all, had I been reading to children, and had my top aide whispered 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 business that he needed to attend to, and I would have attended to it,” the Democratic presidential nominee said to mild applause before a gathering of minority journalists.

Mr. Bush spent five minutes in a reading group with Florida elementary school students upon hearing a second hijacked plane struck the World Trade Center in New York. He then left for a safe location.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said he did not hear the comment, but when asked about Mr. Kerry’s remarks said: “It sounds like more of the same kind of political attacks he’s been engaging in, rather than trying to defend his record and discuss the issues.”

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani responded, “John Kerry must be frustrated in his campaign if he is armchair quarterbacking based on cues from Michael Moore.” Mr. Moore’s documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” chides the president for remaining with the students instead of leaving immediately upon hearing of the second attack.

Mr. Kerry made the comments before a packed house at the Unity Conference, a quadrennial gathering of the four largest minority journalism associations, whose major focus this year is how to increase diversity in news bureaus covering national politics and newsrooms in general. The senator was interrupted by cheers and applause from the audience 27 times.

It was the first time the senator from Massachusetts publicly criticized the president’s actions that morning. Mr. Kerry was at the U.S. Capitol on September 11.

During the speech, Mr. Kerry also said he supported American Indian tribes’ receiving some direct funding from the Homeland Security Department, instead of going through the states and counties. He added that Filipinos who fought for America in World War II should be eligible for veterans benefits.

Mr. Kerry agreed with entertainer Bill Cosby that the black community has to bear some responsibility for social problems it faces.

“My friends, Bill Cosby’s right; people in the community have to accept responsibility,” he said, adding that government also has a role to play, especially in the areas of education funding and youth programs.

“If you have a school system that depends on the property tax and you have a community that doesn’t have any property tax base, and it’s dependent on the largess of either state or federal assistance, but the great ethic of the politics of our nation is no tax … we’ve got a problem,” Mr. Kerry said.

He also opposed the Federal Communications Commission’s decision last year to allow news-gathering companies to further consolidate, which minority journalists have argued will harm diversity.

“I think it’s contrary to the stronger interests of the country,” Mr. Kerry said. “I will pursue a policy that tries to have as diverse and broad an ownership as possible.”

A topic of much discussion at the Unity conference was how a lack of newsroom diversity led to the negative assertions made by CNN and MSNBC news commentators, who said the Rev. Al Sharpton hijacked the Democratic National Convention when he ran over his speaking time and that his message was not what Mr. Kerry wanted.

When asked by The Washington Times about Mr. Sharpton’s speech and whether it was inappropriate, Mr. Kerry said: “No. Al was great. You know he’s a buddy of mine, and he’s been great this whole time throughout the campaign.”

Mr. Bush, on the other hand, has been booed at events with large minority crowds, most recently at a celebration in Atlanta for Martin Luther King. For the past four years, the president has turned down an invitation from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to speak at its annual conference, claiming he wouldn’t be readily accepted by the organization’s leadership and members. He did, however, address the National Urban League — a nonprofit black economic-development group — last month.

Conference participant Andre Whitehead, a television producer from Lynchburg, Va., said he doesn’t think Mr. Bush will get the same treatment when he addresses the Unity conference today, but he wouldn’t be booed.

“I think Bush will get a respectful greeting, because he will be in front of a professional organization. And we have been taught to respect the office of the presidency of the United States,” Mr. Whitehead said.

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