Tuesday, October 08, 2002

Selective who's who invited

Local civic leaders, politicians take top spots on guest list

By Gregory Korte and Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The real audience for President Bush's speech on Iraq Monday night was the American people, Congress and the world. But only about 800 people - a who's who of Cincinnati's business, civic and political community - had the chance to watch it live at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal.

        By putting the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce in charge of invitations, the White House all but assured a respectful, business-minded audience.

At Union Terminal, left to right, U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Terrace Park; U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine; Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken; Cincinnati City Manager Valerie Lemmie; Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        “It's an important international speech,” said J. Joseph Hale, a vice president for Cinergy Corp. “The whole world will watch to see how he goes about building a coalition of support for whatever action he deems necessary.”

        After the speech, Gov. Bob Taft said Mr. Bush made his case.

        “I'm concerned about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction and his ability to deliver those weapons to Israel and draw America in. I believe the threat is very real, and it is the kind of threat we cannot afford to ignore.”

        Mayor Charlie Luken said he tends to support the president, but added, “The question he didn't answer is: Once you start, how do you get out? He'll have to make a better case for that.”

        Pete Witte, president of the Price Hill Civic Association, said his concerns are closer to home. “I hear more people saying, "The stock market's killing me.”' Mr. Witte said a possible war with Iraq is a “legitimate concern. But I can't wait 'til we're done so we can focus on home.”

        John Fleming, vice president of the museum center, said he was “borderline” on whether to support the policy.

        “I'm very anxious to see the debate in Congress. I think the Democratic side now has an obligation to address these issues.”

        Nick Vehr, chamber vice president, said fulfilling ticket demand for the speech was a chore.

        “If we make one more friend than enemy, we'll be happy,” Mr. Vehr said. “I wish I could tell you we applied science to the process. The truth is, we went into a mad rush Friday afternoon.”

        Raymond Buse, the chamber's public affairs manager, said it was a “logistical challenge” to narrow down the civic, business and government leaders.

        Many who would have been invited simply couldn't be reached by the White House deadline of noon Sunday, which allowed the Secret Service time to do a quick background check.

        In some cases, corporate and political connections paid off. Cincinnati Councilman Chris Monzel got a ticket from Republican Party Chairman Michael Barrett, who got tickets through the White House; his colleague David Pepper, a Democrat, got one through his father, retired Procter & Gamble chairman John Pepper, who got his tickets through the chamber.

        For some, getting tickets was as easy as answering the telephone.

        “When you start calling at 3:30 p.m. on Friday and try to reach busy people, that's not a lot of time,” Mr. Buse said.

        Neither the White House nor the chamber of commerce would release a definitive list of invitees.

        “It was made clear to us by the White House staff that this is an official White House address and nonpolitical in nature. We made every effort to ensure nonpartisanship,” said Mr. Buse.

        After the speech, Mr. Bush stepped down from the riser and shook hands with a few of the audience members, most notably Carl Lindner, chairman of American Financial Corp. and one of the biggest contributors to the Republican Party.

        Organizations whose directors and board members got tickets include the African-American Chamber of Commerce, the Japan-America Society, the United Way, the Urban League and the World Affairs Council. Presidents of local universities also got invitations.

        Only one of the two Republican Hamilton County commissioners got an invitation. Commissioner Tom Neyer said he was not sure which “hat” he would be wearing to the speech - that of commissioner or that of Republican Party finance chairman. Commissioner John Dowlin did not get an invitation. The third commissioner, Democrat Todd Portune, didn't expect one. He said circumstances of the speech are unfortunate.

        “The president is here talking about going to war against a repressive dictator, and yet he won't let anyone with an opposing viewpoint within 1,000 feet,” Mr. Portune said. “This is America. Let's not stifle the debate.”

        E-mail gkorte@enquirer.com and dklepal@enquirer.com


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