John Kerry has waded into an issue raised by Michael Moore in his film "Fahrenheit 9/11," namely, President Bush's sitting for seven minutes in a Florida classroom after being told "the country is under attack." Republicans are waxing indignant, of course. But the criticism is richly deserved.
The fact that Bush wasted 27 minutes that day - not only the seven minutes reading to kids but 20 more at a photo op afterward - was, in my view, the most outrageous thing a President has done since Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court. Watergate was outrageous but it still did not carry the possibility of utter devastation, like a President's freezing at the very moment we needed his immediate focus on an attack on the United States.
This is an issue about the ultimate presidential duty, acting in an emergency. If nothing else in Washington is nonpartisan, this should be.
But it is not. Republicans are tying themselves in knots trying to defend Bush's actions that morning. The excuses they put forward are absurd:
* He was "gathering his thoughts." This was a moment a President should have imagined a thousand times. There is no time in the nuclear age for a President to sit like Forrest Gump "gathering thoughts" after an attack has begun. Gathering information is what he should have been doing.
* From the White House press secretary: "The President felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening." I agree that gaining a better understanding of what was happening should have been his goal. What I don't get is how that goal was reached by just sitting there instead of getting up and talking to people. Is he a psychic? Was he receiving the information telepathically?
* "He didn't want to scare the children." Vice President Cheney has said of Kerry, "The senator from Massachusetts has given us ample reason to doubt the judgment he brings to vital issues of national security." So Kerry's judgment is suspect, but at a moment of national crisis, Bush's judgment was: Better not to scare 20 children momentarily than to react immediately to an attack on the country!
If he had just said, "Hey, kids, gotta go do some President business - be good to your moms and dads, bye!" my guess is the kids would have survived.
I cannot see how someone who considers himself a conservative can defend George Bush's inaction. Conservatives pride themselves on being clear-eyed and decisive. They don't do nuance, and they respect toughness.
But Bush choked at the most important moment a President could have. We're lucky Al Qaeda had done its worst by the time he pulled himself away from the photo op. Next time, it might not be that way.
Maher is the host of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher."