EAST MEADOW, N.Y. – President Bush shoveled dirt Thursday at the somber groundbreaking for a new memorial for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, an event that has defined his presidency and is the centerpiece of his re-election campaign.
Bush used images from the World Trade Center's (search) smoldering wreckage in his first re-election TV commercials last week, and refused to retreat when critics called them crass exploitation of those killed in the attacks.
The president made no remarks at the ceremony attended by several hundred people, uniformed Nassau County firefighters, a color guard and bagpipers who played strains of "Amazing Grace." But earlier, at a factory in another part of Long Island, Bush said the lesson of Sept. 11 is that "we must deal with threats before they fully materialize."
Pat Kiefer, mother of a 25-year-old victim of the attack on the World Trade Center, said the government should have done more to prevent them.
"I will never vote again. I don't believe any of the politicians," said Kiefer, who held an enlarged photo of her son and talked to reporters after the event.
Rebutting Democrats who criticized Bush for attending a campaign fund-raiser after the groundbreaking, White House press secretary Scott McClellan explained that Bush was invited to the memorial on Feb. 17 by the Nassau County executive and the board of the memorial foundation after they heard about the fund-raiser, which was scheduled in mid-January.
The quarrel over the ads overshadowed the event.
"No one's been held accountable for anything about 9/11," said Bill Doyle, who lost his 25-year-old son, Joseph, at the World Trade Center. Doyle also criticized the image in Bush's campaign commercial of the flag-draped remains of a victim being carried from ground zero.
"I have a problem with exploiting death for political gain," he said. "I'd have the same problem if Democrats used images of body bags coming back from Iraq in one of their ads."
The $750,000 memorial will feature two semitransparent aluminum towers, representing the World Trade Center, rising 30 feet from a reflecting pool. It will also have a wall with the names of 281 victims who lived in or had ties to Nassau County, N.Y., and two pieces of steel from the trade center's wreckage.
It is expected to be completed in time for September's third anniversary of the attacks.
Besides Bush, New York Gov. George Pataki (search), former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (search), and Rep. Peter King (search), R-N.Y., also attended the commemoration. Both Pataki and Giuliani have defended Bush's use of Sept. 11 in the campaign.
Afterward, the group of politicians were making the five-minute trip to Bush's fund-raiser. Bush has raised more than $160 million for his re-election and shows no sign of slowing down as he approaches his stated goal of $170 million.
Both Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, were on separate money-raising trips as well.
Bush started the day by tending to his conservative base with satellite remarks to the National Association of Evangelicals Convention (search) in Colorado. He used the occasion to issue a fresh appeal for support of his national-security agenda, with a special emphasis on his "compassionate conservative" goals.
"America is a nation with a mission," Bush said. "We're called to fight terrorism around the world, and we're waging that fight. As freedom's home and freedom's defender, we are called to expand the realm of human liberty, and by our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 50 million people have been liberated from tyranny."
His first stop in New York was at USA Industries, an automotive parts plant in nearby Bay Shore, where he expressed optimism about the economy, despite a limp job market.
"People are saying we'll stop jobs from going overseas by making sure we put up walls and barriers between the United States and the rest of the world," he said. "That's lousy policy."
Bush's words were aimed at his likely Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, who has supported trade pacts with other nations, but now wants to review them to make sure they are fair to America.