HOUSTON – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) on Thursday criticized President Bush's (search) meeting with a top Saudi official, contending that consumers are paying billions of dollars in higher gasoline prices while the president is chummy with big oil producers.
"I believe the American people deserve a president who just isn't going to have a friendly talk, but who is going to fight to guarantee that we lower prices for Americans," Kerry said.
Kerry used an Earth Day speech to criticize a meeting in which, according to a broadcast report, Bush and Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan (search) discussed increasing oil production to drive down prices as the election nears.
"I don't know if it was a deal, I don't know if it was a secret pledge, I don't know if it was just a friendly conversation among friends," Kerry said. "The fact remains that whatever it was, the American people are getting a bad deal today."
Speaking to more than 2,000 people at the University of Houston, Kerry said Bush broke a 2000 campaign pledge to put pressure on oil-producing nations to increase production and to "jawbone" OPEC (search) nations to that end.
"I'm here today to say if there was no deal, if there was no agreement, then stand up today and jawbone OPEC to lower the price," Kerry said. "They could up that production tomorrow. We need to have them answer why they won't do that."
Bandar has denied any linkage between the election and a Saudi pledge to the Bush administration to push for lower oil prices. CBS's "60 Minutes" reported Sunday night that journalist Bob Woodward said Bandar promised Bush that Saudi Arabia will lower oil prices to ensure the U.S. economy is strong on Election Day.
"John Kerry delivered a deliberately false attack today, the basis of which has been refuted," Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said.
The U.S. dependency on foreign oil, and the fact that Saudi Arabia is the world's largest producer, have compelled all presidents to take a friendly approach to Saudi Arabia. The Bush-Bandar relationship is personal as well as political, extending across the administrations of both Bush presidencies.
The Saudi ambassador attended the unveiling of former President George H.W. Bush's official portrait when he returned to the White House in 1995. He was among the guests at a surprise 75th birthday party in 2000 for former first lady Barbara Bush, and the former president has vacationed at Bandar's home in Aspen, Colo.
Bandar has been a guest at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas. Just last year he presented the first family with a C.M. Russell painting, a gift worth $1 million that will be stored in the National Archives, along with other presents from well-wishers destined for a Bush presidential library.
Bush's father was closer to the Saudis than his son. While friendly, the president has lent strong support to Israel in spite of Arab complaints.
Good relations with the American public at large also matter to the Saudis. After the Sept. 11 attacks by 15 Saudi citizens and four men from other nations, the Saudi government spent $17 million on public relations, advertising and lobbying to promote U.S.-Saudi friendship.
Bandar, a familiar figure in Washington, has met Kerry on official and social occasions, said Stephanie Cutter, the senator's spokeswoman. "I would not describe it as a close relationship," she said. Kerry has visited Saudi Arabia several times, most recently in 2002.
In his Earth Day speech, Kerry renewed his criticism of an energy task force, headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, that helped shape the administration's energy policies.
"I pledge to you as president, I will fight for Americans, not in secret deals, not in secret meetings with the energy companies," he said. "I pledge to you as president, no deal will be cut and no legislation will be written by polluters."
Kerry said there's little evidence that Bush is interested in pressuring oil-producing countries to raise production.
Kerry took note that Bush planned an Earth Day speech to mark his environmental record, but warned "this administration is playing the smoke-and-mirrors game."
As he has all week, Kerry was combining fund-raising with a focus on the environment. He raised $1 million for his campaign at a Houston event Thursday night, and another $1 million for the Democratic National Committee before heading back to Washington.