Republican John McCain declined Thursday to disavow his campaign's tough criticism of Democrat Barack Obama's experience as a community organizer, saying politics is "tough business" even as he praised Obama's service.
At a live, televised forum on public service timed to coincide with the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, McCain said he respected Obama's decision after law school to forgo a lucrative career path and become a community organizer in downtrodden Chicago.
"I respect people who serve their community," McCain said. "And Sen. Obama's record there is outstanding."
Appearing after McCain, Obama said he was surprised by the belittling of the three years he spent working with Chicago churches after graduating from Columbia University, where the Service Nation Presidential Candidates Forum was held.
"No insult to the president of this fine institution, but it was the best education I ever had because it taught me that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they're given a chance and when they're brought together," Obama said. "That's a message I think everyone should want to encourage and I hope the Republicans want to encourage that as well."
McCain said the negativity that has infused the presidential race — on hiatus for one day in honor of the Sept. 11 anniversary — could have been avoided had Obama accepted his proposal for them to tour the country together doing town-hall meetings, a format in which McCain shines best.
"I think the tone of this whole campaign would have been very different," the GOP nominee said.
Handshake and quick hug
The two candidates spoke separately, appearing together briefly on stage between appearances with a quick hug and handshake. The forum was broadcast live on some cable networks and moderated by Judy Woodruff of PBS' "NewsHour" and Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time magazine.
The 1,000-member audience included relatives of Sept. 11 victims, veterans, policy leaders, students and celebrities such as Caroline Kennedy, singers Jon Bon Jovi and Usher, and actors Tobey Maguire, Glenn Close and Leonardo DiCaprio. Obama running mate Joe Biden sat in the front row, and the two met privately afterward after campaigning apart for several days.
McCain campaign surrogates have derided Obama's experience as too thin to qualify him for the White House. But that line of attacked subsided somewhat after McCain chose as his running mate, Sarah Palin, a former small-town mayor who has been Alaska's governor for less than two years.
"This is a tough business," he said. "Has it been rough? Of course."
He added: "The people make the final judgment with their votes."
McCain also said he would have asked Americans to serve after the terrorist attacks by joining neighborhood watches or helping guard nuclear plants, offering an implicit criticism of President Bush's approach seven years ago. In a speech after the attacks, Bush exhorted the public to "do your business around the country, fly and enjoy America's great destination spots, get down to Disney World in Florida." Though Bush emphasizes the importance of volunteerism and service, he didn't ask Americans to respond to the attacks or participate in the Iraq war through personal sacrifice.
Obama has promised that a call to service would be a cornerstone of his presidency. He criticized Bush for asking those eager to help after the attacks merely "to shop."
Obama, who has said he didn't join the military because the country wasn't at war when he was young, said he would encourage more people from all parts of the country to serve in the Armed Forces.
"If you go to small towns, throughout the Midwest or the Southwest or the South, every town has tons of young people who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "That's not always the case in other parts of the country, in more urban centers, and I think it's important for the president to say, this is an important obligation. If we are going into war, then all of us go, not just some."
The expansion of government national service programs Obama has proposed would cost $3.5 billion a year, including a new "Green Vet Initiative," increasing the all-volunteer military, expanding AmeriCorps, doubling the size of the Peace Corps, expanding service programs involving retired people, and creating a tax credit making the first $4,000 of college tuition free for students who perform 100 hours of public service a year.
Asked about Obama's proposal, McCain said: "I'd be glad to spend money." But quickly added: "It doesn't always have to be run by the government."
The two men agreed that Columbia University erred by banning ROTC programs from campus.