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A pause in political nastiness

McCain praises his rival's work as a community organizer. Obama returns the compliment.

September 12, 2008|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — On a day when the presidential candidates put aside politics to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Republican nominee John McCain distanced himself from comments made by his running mate, Sarah Palin, who derided Democratic rival Barack Obama's service as a community organizer.

The issue became a flash point during the Republican convention last week when Palin contrasted her background as a small-town mayor with Obama's post-college job helping public housing tenants and the unemployed on the South Side of Chicago.

She drew appreciative laughter when she said her work as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, was "sort of like a community organizer, except that you actually have responsibilities."

McCain backed away from those comments Thursday at a forum on service at Columbia University, where he and Obama appeared for back-to-back interviews.

"I praise anyone who serves this nation in capacities that, frankly, we all know could have been far more financially rewarding to individuals than doing what they did," McCain said.

Pressed by moderator Judy Woodruff of PBS about whether he condoned Palin's tone, McCain insisted he respected the work of community organizers and went so far as to say he would consider asking Obama to oversee national service efforts in a McCain administration.

"Sen. Obama's record there is outstanding," McCain said of his rival's work as a community organizer.

Acknowledging that the tone of the presidential campaign had been "rough," he praised Obama for inspiring "millions of Americans who otherwise wouldn't be involved in the political process."

Obama returned the compliment in the next hour, lauding McCain's service as a Navy pilot. He said he had been surprised by the criticism of his work on the South Side of Chicago.

"I think about the choice I made as a 23-, 24-year-old to spend three years working with churches to help people help themselves," Obama said. "No insult to the president of this fine institution, but it's the best education I ever had."

The moderators asked Obama, in turn, if Democrats had belittled Palin's experience as a former small-town mayor. Palin is now the governor of Alaska.

After McCain picked Palin, Obama's spokesman, Bill Burton, said, "Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency."

Obama spoke up for mayors everywhere, saying their job is among the toughest in the country.

"While we yak in the Senate, they actually have to fill potholes and trim trees and make sure the garbage is taken away," he said.

The congenial tone of the forum, at which the two candidates shook hands and hugged briefly on stage at the university's Lerner Hall, provided a fleeting pause in the rancorous debate on the campaign trail.

Both held to their pledge, which they made in a joint statement last week, to avoid politics and display unity in honor of the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. Before participating in the interviews, part of a weeklong "Service Nation Summit" on community and national service, McCain and Obama shared a moment of prayer and reflection during a visit to ground zero.

They were accompanied by McCain's wife, Cindy, and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. They greeted one another with a handshake and barely spoke as they walked down the long ramp lined with flags from across the world to the reflecting pool at ground zero.

Neither candidate campaigned Thursday. Obama had lunch with former President Clinton at his office in Harlem. McCain attended a memorial in Shanksville, Pa., for those aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into a field after passengers are believed to have overpowered the hijackers.

For all the venom passing between the campaigns, each man seemed willing to name the other to a Cabinet post. Whether the loser would accept was not so clear.

Asked if, as president, he would put McCain in charge of a Cabinet position devoted to national service, Obama, enjoying the question, said, "If this is the deal he wants to make right now, I am committed to appointing him to my Cabinet."

Would he accept the same job under President McCain?

"We've got a little work to do before we get to that point," Obama said.



Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.

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