WASHINGTON - A new partisan firestorm erupted yesterday as Democrats assailed President Bush's top political strategist, Karl Rove, for criticizing liberals for what he deemed their tepid response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
The White House said it would not heed Democratic demands for an apology from Rove or a presidential condemnation of the adviser's remarks, and it rejected Democratic charges that Rove's words amounted to a Bush administration attempt to exploit the war on terrorism for political gain.
At a Manhattan fund-raiser Wednesday night, the architect of Bush's two presidential campaigns and now White House deputy chief of staff told members of the Conservative Party of New York State: "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war. Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers."
During his unusually contentious daily briefing yesterday at the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan defended Rove to the hilt, saying repeatedly that Rove was "simply pointing out the different philosophies and different approaches when it comes to winning the war on terrorism."
Rove's reference to indictments was derived straight from Bush's speeches at political fund-raisers in the run-up to the Iraq war, when the president often evoked laughter by telling wealthy Republicans, as he did in Minneapolis on July 11, 2002, in a reference to Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers: "I don't know what went through their mind. They must have thought we were so self-absorbed and materialistic that all we would do after 9/11 was file a lawsuit or two."
Asked about such Bush statements, McClellan said yesterday that Bush had said it "with all seriousness."
In a previously scheduled interview on CNN, Vice President Dick Cheney came to Rove's defense, saying Rove sought to differentiate between the traditional approach of dealing with terrorists as a law enforcement matter and the imperatives of a post-9/11 global war on terrorism.
The latest flap - coming just two days after a top Senate Democrat, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, had to apologize for his words about the treatment of detainees by U.S. troops - led to a daylong exchange of sometimes harsh rhetoric. It revealed the depth of bitterness on both sides and raised fresh questions over whether civility and decorum would return to a divided capital awash in demands for retractions and apologies.
After excerpts of Rove's speech began circulating yesterday morning, Democrats unleashed a barrage of fire.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said Rove should "immediately and fully apologize" or resign.
Democratic senators from the three states that lost the most lives on Sept. 11 - New York, New Jersey and Connecticut - denounced Rove for seeking to "inject politics into this," saying his comments were "inaccurate," "inflammatory," "insulting," and "opportunistic."
In seeking further to refute Rove's charge, Democrats also pointed out that just three days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Senate voted 98-0, and the House voted 420-1, for a resolution authorizing Bush to "use all necessary and appropriate force" against those behind the attacks.
They also pointed to the president's statement after the vote, in which he praised Congress for being "united so powerfully" while sending a clear message to America's enemies.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.