Obama, McCain Speak At Community Service Forum

Barack Obama and John McCain appeared before the same audience Thursday at a Columbia University summit focused on national service. McCain said he respects Obama's experience as a community organizer. Obama praised the work of small-town mayors.

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And the Sarah Palin interview was broadcast on a day when the presidential candidates appeared together in New York to commemorate the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was a busy day for both of them, as NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE: Senator Obama's first stop was Bill Clinton's office in Harlem. These two men didn't exactly get along during the primaries when Clinton, campaigning on behalf of his wife, questioned Obama's credentials. But yesterday, the former president said he's ready to campaign for Obama and confident in the nominee.

Over a two-hour lunch, aides say, the two men spoke at length about the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. And the anniversary of that tragedy was the day's theme. Republican John McCain began with a stop in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. He recalled the passengers on United Flight 93, who were said to have crashed their plane into a Pennsylvania field to divert it from Washington.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona, Presidential candidate): In the Gospel of John it is written greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends. Such was their love, a love so sublime that only God's love surpasses it.

GREENE: McCain then flew to New York. His campaign and Obama's timed their motorcades to arrive at Ground Zero in sync. The candidates walked together down a long construction ramp into the pit that was once the World Trade Center. Hour later, they were together again at Columbia University, headlining a summit focusing on national service. A coin flip had McCain on stage first. Co-moderator and Time magazine managing editor Rick Stengel asked McCain if he'd want a cabinet-level position focusing on service.

Mr. RICK STENGEL (Time Magazine): Would you perhaps ask Senator Obama to be a member of your cabinet for national service?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Senator MCCAIN: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: No doubt public service seems like an issue that would keep the candidates together. Then again, the topic has been a sticking point in the campaign of late. At the Republican National Convention, McCain's running mate Sarah Palin downplayed Obama's time as a community organizer back in Chicago. McCain was asked about Palin's comments last night.

Senator MCCAIN: Governor Palin was responding to the criticism of her inexperience in her job as a mayor in a small town. That's what she was responding to. Of course I respect community organizers. Of course I respect people who serve their community. And Senator Obama's record there is outstanding.

GREENE: After 45 minutes of McCain, co-moderator Judy Woodruff introduced the former community organizer.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. JUDY WOODRUFF (Moderator): As we thank Senator McCain very much for his participation, we want to welcome now the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, Senator Barack Obama.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: The candidates met onstage for a few seconds with McCain giving Obama a thumbs-up. Then it was Obama's turn for questions, including what he thought about Sarah Palin's criticism of him and what he thought about Palin's public service experience as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois, Presidential Candidate): We had an awful lot of small town mayors at the Democratic convention, I assure you. I meet them all the time. And I have - the mayors have some of the toughest jobs in the country, because that's where the rubber hits the road. You know, we yak in the Senate. They actually have to fill potholes and trim trees and make sure the garbage is taken away.

GREENE: As for whether Obama would tap McCain as an advisor on public service.

Senator OBAMA: If this is the deal he wants to make right now...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Senator OBAMA: ...I am committed to appointing him to my cabinet for national service. Look...

Ms. WOODRUFF: Would you be willing to serve in his cabinet?

Senator OBAMA: We've got a little work to do before we get to that point.

GREENE: And with that, the candidates headed on their separate ways again.

David Greene, NPR News, New York.

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