The White House is defending a decision by President Bush's Republican Party to reward wealthy donors with a photo of the president taken in the hours after last September's terrorists attacks. Correspondent Democrats are outraged, accusing the Republicans of attempting to cash in on a national tragedy.
This controversy centers on a photograph taken of President Bush on the phone to Vice President Cheney while aboard Air Force One a short time after Mr. Bush learned that both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been attacked by terrorists.
Democrats are condemning the sale of the photo as a fundraising gimmick, with former Vice President Al Gore, President Bush's political opponent in the 2000 presidential elections, calling it "disgraceful" and the party's national chairman labeling it grotesque.
Congressman Dick Gephardt, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, accuses Republicans of attempting to capitalize on the president's high public approval ratings for his handling of the war on terrorism. "It is a disappointment because we cannot break into partisan fighting about the war on terrorism."
In January, the president's chief political strategist Karl Rove faced similar criticism after telling Republicans the party should not hesitate to use the president's conduct in the war to its political advantage. But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says the administration saw no problem in using this photo taken on September 11 as a fundraising tool. "The White House was generally aware of the fact that they wanted to use pictures for fundraising purposes, and no objections were raised," he says. "It is an event for the party committees to decide if they want to make those pictures available to their contributors. They have that right to do so. These pictures represent the president at work for the country."
The controversy is drawing comparisons to party fundraisers held by Democrats during the Clinton administration in which large party donors were treated to coffee with the president and sleep-overs in the White House.
But Steven Push, who lost his wife on board the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, does not consider selling a photo of the president at work on September 11as a case of politicizing a national tragedy. "I think it is a stretch to say that giving someone a picture of him on the phone following 9-11 is using the issue for political gain," he says. "I would be disturbed if he [were] trying to question the patriotism of Democrats."
Still, House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert expects Republicans will think twice before doing something like this again. "I think that has been done, and it is kind of hard to take it back."
Two months ago, President Bush signed legislation outlawing large, unlimited donations to the national political parties -- which would take effect after the November elections. The photo that is causing all this controversy was offered to party donors at a Republican fundraiser Tuesday night, which raised a record $30 million for the Mr. Bush's political party.