WASHINGTON – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's insult-laden diatribe against President Bush brought an angry response Thursday from three of Bush's harshest Democratic critics.
Despite tepid relations with Bush, two House Democratic leaders and a long-serving senator took exception to remarks by Chavez, who twice has called the U.S. president "the devil" while delivering remarks in New York City this week.
"Don't come to the United States and think, because we have problems with our president, that any foreigner can come to our country and not think that Americans do not feel offended when you offend our chief of state," New York Rep. Charles Rangel said in remarks delivered on Capitol Hill.
"It should be clear to all heads of government that criticism of Bush administration policies, either domestic or foreign, does not entitle them to attack the president personally. George Bush is the president of the United States and represents the entire country. Any demeaning public attack against him is viewed by Republicans and Democrats, and all Americans, as an attack on all of us," said Rangel.
The 18-term congressman who has said he will retire this year if Democrats don't win back the House majority, represents the district where Chavez appeared Thursday to promote his offer to give heating oil at discounted prices to low-income Americans.
Chavez attended Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Harlem, where he was introduced by actor Danny Glover, a Harlem native who traveled to Caracas in January and met with the Venezuelan president. At Thursday's event, Chavez repeated a reference to the president as the "devil," mimicking remarks he made a a day earlier to the U.N. General Assembly.
At one point Chavez told the audience that "sometimes the devil takes human form," a comment that drew some boos — and applause — from the crowd who interpreted the reference to mean Bush.
At the General Assembly, Chavez called Bush, who spoke to the assembly the day before, the devil.
"Yesterday, the devil came here. Right here. Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of," he said. Chavez received enthusiastic applause for his 20-minute speech.
Asked for a retort, the White House and State Department both said Chavez's remarks don't warrant a response.
"I'm not going to dignify a comment by the Venezuelan president. The president of the United States should not be spoken of in such a way. I think it's not becoming for a head of state," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
On Thursday, however, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did criticize Chavez.
"The manner in which he characterized the president demeaned himself and demeaned Venezuela. He fancies himself a modern day Simone Bolivar ... But he is an everyday thug," said Pelosi, D-Calif. Bolivar was a statesman known as "the Liberator" for leading Venezuela's revolt against Spain in the early 19th century.
Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa also called Chavez's statements "incendiary and unworthy of a nation’s leader."
Former Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy, who now runs an organization, Citizens Energy, dedicated to delivering home heating oil to the poor, was supposed to attend Thursday's event in Harlem, but cancelled on Wednesday afternoon. Kennedy spokesman Brian O'Connor insisted that Chavez's comments at the General Assembly had nothing to do with the decision to skip the event, and that family obligations prevented Kennedy from being there.
Under the terms of agreement between Venezuela-owned Citgo Petroleum Corporation and Citizens Energy, between Nov. 1, 2006, and Feb. 28, 2007, customers with qualifying incomes in the Northeast will pay 60 percent of the discounted price for up to 200 gallons of heating oil. Citizens Energy will pay the other 40 percent.
Venezuela is the world's eighth largest net exporter of oil, much of which ends up in U.S. automobiles and homes. Rangel said given the amount of oil the U.S. buys from Venezuela, he sees "no reason why we should not be appreciative in accepting the generosity of the Venezuelan government."
"I am surprised that American oil companies have not stepped up to provide that kind of assistance to the poor. Venezuela's generosity to the poor, however, should not be interpreted as license to attack President Bush," he said.