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Obama Keeps Ground Zero Appearance Muted

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

President Barack Obama walked a fine line yesterday when he visited New York City in the aftermath of the military operation that killed Osama bin Laden. Mr. Obama met with firefighters, police, and other rescue workers before laying a wreath at Ground Zero. Despite a full slate of appearances, the White House seemed at pains not to be seen as gloating.

NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: The president's first stop in New York was Engine 54, the midtown firehouse that lost 15 men on September 11th, more than any other. Mr. Obama told the firefighters, quote, "What happened on Sunday sent a message. When we say we will never forget, we mean what we say."

Then he sat down for lunch at the station, prepared by firefighter Joe Ceravolo.

Mr. JOE CERAVOLO (Firefighter): He was a great guy, you know. He...

ROSE: What did he say to you?

Mr. CERAVOLO: He just - he loved the shrimp. He loved the veal. He really liked the eggplant parmesan. He was a really down-to-earth guy. We were just, you know, it was just like hanging out with the rest of the guys in the firehouse.

ROSE: Mr. Obama did not hang out with the assembled reporters. Instead, the motorcade headed south to lower Manhattan and a brief visit to the First Precinct Police Station, near the World Trade Center site. Then it was on to Ground Zero, where Mr. Obama laid a wreath of red, white and blue flowers to honor the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives there in September 2001. The president observed a moment of silence while photographers snapped pictures.

(Soundbite of camera clicks)

ROSE: Mr. Obama spoke privately to the families of September 11th victims and local elected officials from all parts of the political spectrum. But again, he passed on the opportunity to address the media or the hundreds of people who crowded the narrow streets around the World Trade Center site hoping for a glimpse of the president.

Mr. ROBERT HOWLETT: I was here 10 years ago. Actually, I was down in the -one block up from here when the second plane hit. So it kind of comes full-circle today.

ROSE: Robert Howlett of New Jersey works a few blocks from Ground Zero. He says this crowd was more somber than the one that celebrated Osama bin Laden's death through the wee hours of Sunday night and right into Monday morning.

Mr. HOWLETT: People chanting, and people had signs and flags and newspapers holding them up. And "we got him, we got him." I think that today's a little bit different. The president is coming to Ground Zero. It's not really a time for a lot of hoopla.

ROSE: That changed - momentarily, at least - when the presidential motorcade rolled by, causing a forest of cameras and cell phones to shoot up into the air.

(Soundbite of cheers)

ROSE: Silvia D'Addario(ph) of the Bronx didn't get a picture of the president, but she did see him waving from the window of his car and seemed happy about it.

Ms. SILVIA D'ADDARIO: I think that he's the best president we've ever had. So he's formidable. He gets the job done, and he does things in a very orchestrated manner. That's what we needed, someone on point, and he's got point.

ROSE: But not everyone in the crowd was so star-struck. Matthew Botwin(ph) works a few blocks from Ground Zero. He thinks the president's appearance in New York could be seen as exploiting the capture of Osama bin Laden for political gains.

Mr. MATTHEW BOTWIN: You know, that phrase has been thrown around, victory lap. That doesn't sit well. You know, it seems like gloating, a little bit. But he didn't give a speech. I haven't heard any gloating. So it was a thought, and I'm glad he hasn't done that.

ROSE: The White House seems to be aware of that potential criticism, and that may be why the president avoided addressing the public or the press. John Lesquadro(ph) of Brooklyn thinks that was the good choice.

Mr. JOHN LESQUADRO: Personally, I think it was done tastefully. I don't think it was overdone. And I think it's making New York and the United States come together again and feel good about themselves.

ROSE: Today, the president travels to Fort Campbell in Kentucky to be with members of the military, including the Navy SEALs who carried out the operation against Osama bin Laden.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.