President Bush's day-old reelection advertising campaign generated criticism and controversy yesterday, as relatives of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes charged that television commercials using images from the attacks were exploiting the tragedy for political gain.
The reaction to the ads put Bush campaign officials on the defensive on a day in which they had hoped to have the political spotlight to themselves after months in which media attention focused on the Democratic candidates and their criticisms of the president. The ads quickly became a political issue, with the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee firing salvos over them.
The three Bush ads began airing yesterday on national cable networks and in 17 states that are expected to be closely contested between the president and his likely challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
"The idea that President Bush would rally support around his campaign by using our loved ones in a way that is so shameful is hard for me to believe," said Rita Lasar, a New York resident whose brother, Abe Zelmanowitz, died in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. "It's so hard for us to believe that it's not obvious to everyone that Ground Zero shouldn't be used as a backdrop for a political campaign. We are incensed and hurt by what he is doing."
Kelly Campbell, co-director of a nonpartisan group called Sept. 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, acknowledged that some victims' relatives found the ads appropriate. "There's no consensus around this, but for the most part 9/11 families are very sensitive to someone using images of our loved one's death for their own ends," she said. "And that's what's pretty blatantly happening here."
Campbell's group will hold a news conference today on the grounds of the World Trade Center to call for Bush to withdraw the two ads that include images of the tragedy.
All three ads are designed to highlight Bush's "steady" leadership amid economic uncertainty and national security challenges.
One of them, called "Safer, Stronger," draws a strong link between patriotism, Sept. 11 and the president. Following the words "an economy in recession . . . a stock-market in decline . . . a dot-com boom gone bust," the on-screen message changes to read, "then . . . a day of tragedy." This is quickly followed by glimpses of a destroyed World Trade Center tower, firefighters carrying a flag-draped body, a man raising an American flag and Bush speaking at a lectern.
In the other spot making the connection to 9/11, called "Tested," a narrator says, "The last few years have tested America in many ways. Some challenges we've seen before. And some were like no others." The last sentence is accompanied by the same shot of the charred World Trade Center that appears in the first ad.
The ads so angered the 265,000-member International Association of Fire Fighters that the group approved a resolution yesterday calling on the Bush campaign to withdraw them and apologize to victims' families. The union was the first to endorse Kerry last year, but its president, Harold Schaitberger, said the reaction would have been the same had the Kerry campaign done something similar. "We find this absolutely disgraceful and disgusting," said Schaitberger, who noted that 343 firefighters perished on Sept. 11, 2001.
A spokeswoman for Kerry, who did not campaign yesterday, said the campaign would have no comment on the ads. But she pointed a reporter to the fire fighters' resolution.
Officials in both the Bush administration and his reelection campaign stood by the ads, saying the Sept. 11 images are justified by the president's record. "Sept. 11 changed the equation in our public policy," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "The president's steady leadership is vital to how we wage war on terrorism."
In an appearance on CBS's "The Early Show" yesterday, Bush strategist Karen Hughes said, "With all due respect, I just completely disagree [with the families], and I believe the vast majority of the American people will as well."
Attempting to regain the initiative, the Bush-Cheney campaign went on the offensive yesterday, booking former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani on two networks; former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik on three networks; Deena Burnett, the widow of United Flight 93 victim Tom Burnett, on five networks, including Spanish-language Univision; and Rep. Vito Fossella, a Republican from Staten Island, on three cable shows. GOP officials said the interviews were booked only because of the controversy, and they said they believe their representatives would be viewed by most voters as having more stature than the critics.
Giuliani, who was mayor of New York during the Sept. 11 attacks and has campaigned on behalf of Bush since then, said in a statement issued through the RNC: "President Bush has provided the steady, consistent and principled leadership to bring our country through the worst attack in our history. His leadership on that day is central to his record, and his continued leadership is critical to our ultimate success against world terrorism."
Bush has frequently invoked the terrorist attacks in speeches and comments on a variety of topics. He cited it, for instance, last summer in arguing for his energy policy and in response to questions about tax cuts, fundraising and unemployment, the deficit, airport security, the war in Afghanistan and the length, cost and death toll in Iraq.
This week, he cited the Sept. 11 attacks in campaign speeches at fundraisers on Wednesday in Los Angeles and again yesterday in Santa Clara, Calif.
"September the 11th, 2001, taught a lesson I have not forgotten. America must confront threats before they fully materialize," Bush said. He did not mention the ads. Earlier, at an economic event in Bakersfield, Calif., he said the nation was coming out of a recession until "the enemy hit us -- on September the 11th, 2001."
Democrats have been angered by that rhetoric, saying Bush has not cooperated fully with efforts of a federal panel investigating the attacks.
Some Democrats have also been critical of the decision to hold the Republican National Convention in New York in early September, just a few days before the third anniversary of the attacks.
Staff writer Mike Allen in California contributed to this report.