WASHINGTON — The White House quarreled with Democrats Tuesday over whether President Bush was trying to win political points by using a Sept. 11 anniversary speech to defend the war in Iraq and his war on terror.
Bush spokesman Tony Snow said although there were “three or four sentences” in the president’s 17-minute address Monday night that could be considered controversial, Bush took pains not to be partisan. He said Bush had to discuss the dominant issue of Iraq, but he wasn’t “picking fights” or making any demands of Congress.
“This was not a speech that was designed to single out anybody for partisan reasons, but gave the president’s honest reflections and reactions to what has happened since September 11, 2001,” Snow said. “The president decided that yesterday wasn’t a day for partisanship.”
Democrats, in a campaign to win control of Congress from the president’s Republican Party, charged that Bush was using a national day of mourning for partisan gain. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Tuesday that Bush was “more consumed by staying the course in Iraq and playing election-year politics.”
“The American people deserved better last night,” Reid said in a statement. “They deserved a chance to reclaim that sense of unity, purpose and patriotism that swept through our country five years ago.”
In the speech broadcast in prime time on the fifth anniversary of the terror attacks, the president described a brutal enemy still determined to kill Americans, perhaps with weapons of mass destruction if they get the chance.
“If we do not defeat these enemies now, we will leave our children to face a Middle East overrun by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons,” Bush said. “We are in a war that will set the course for this new century and determine the destiny of millions across the world.”
Bush began with a two-minute tribute to the nearly 3,000 victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, but most of his 17-minute speech was devoted to justifying his foreign policy since that day. With his party’s control of Congress at stake in elections less than two months away, Bush suggested that political opponents who are calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq would be giving victory to the terrorists.
“Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone,” Bush said from the Oval Office, with a photo of his twin daughters and the American flag behind him. “They will not leave us alone. They will follow us. The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad.”
While Democrats have been using public opposition to the Iraq war to argue for a change of leadership in Congress, Bush’s prime-time address showed how he has been able to use the power of incumbency to command public attention and make his points. Democrats objected to the tone.
“The president should be ashamed of using a national day of mourning to commandeer the airwaves to give a speech that was designed not to unite the country and commemorate the fallen but to seek support for a war in Iraq that he has admitted had nothing to do with 9/11,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said in a statement. “There will be time to debate this president’s policies in Iraq. September 11th is not that time.”
On Monday, dozens of lawmakers from both parties put aside the campaigning and joined on the steps of the Capitol to remember the attacks. Together they sang “God Bless America” as they had five years ago.