Bush has been criticized for a speech given about two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, in which he 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 to participate in the Iraq war - through personal sacrifice.
McCain has criticized Bush on this front before, as recently as last weekend when he called it "one of the biggest mistakes that we ever made after 9/11."
McCain said he would have talked "directly to the American people on the need for us all to serve this nation" and immediately proposed legislation to create additional service organizations and expand existing ones such as AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and the military.
"I believe Americans at this point, if you're digging for the pony, as I clearly am, are ready now to be inspired, they're ready to go," he said.
McCain was followed to the stage by his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, and they shook hands before McCain departed. The event amounted to back-to-back live interviews of the two candidates - the forum was broadcast live on some cable networks - 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, R&B singer Usher, and actors Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Obama has promised that a call to service would be a cornerstone of his presidency, and also has criticized Bush for asking Americans eager to pitch in after the attacks merely "to shop."
The expansion of government national service programs he 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 conduct 100 hours of public service a year.
McCain, asked about Obama's proposal, said: "I'd be glad to spend money." But he quickly added that "it doesn't always have to be run by the government."
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