By Denise Amos and Gregory Korte
Enquirer staff writers
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center became a political backdrop Monday during brief visits from President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Powell said Monday that his half-day trip to Cincinnati was not a campaign stop. He said he wanted to tour the center, which opened to the public Aug. 3 and will hold its grand opening Monday..
Hours before he addressed the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign War at the Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center, Powell spent less than 30 minutes looking at exhibits and chatting with top museum officials.
He made a statement to the press in front of the museum's showcase, a 19th-century restored slave pen from Kentucky.
"(The center) captures in a beautiful way a unique part of American history," Powell said, "how black people were brought here as slaves, heard about the Underground Railroad, heard about freedom and made the arduous journey to the North."
Cincinnati, he said, is an appropriate place to tell the story of "how far our nation has come."
Six hours earlier, Powell's boss also got a private tour, led by the center's executive director, Spencer Crew, and its president, Ed Rigaud. Bush's 20-minute tour came just after he gave a speech to the VFW conventioneers.
Joining Bush for part of the tour were his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, and U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Terrace Park, who helped secure $22 million in federal funding for the center.
Bush's first stop: "Journeys," a quilt-like wall mural that artist Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson pieced together over 35 years.
"Really. That's interesting," Bush said, nodding and smiling as he listened.
The president then posed for photos with docents. Outside the view of the cameras, he toured the slave pen, touching the wood beams and iron shackles.
During his visit, Powell told Crew and retired federal Judge Nathaniel Jones about a Confederate military leader who warned Jefferson Davis not to enlist slaves to fight for the South during the Civil War.
"If you put them in the same uniform, have them carry the same weapons, have them living and dying beside us, then the premise for slavery is gone," Powell paraphrased.
As he read a giant copy of the 14th Amendment, Powell said, "The words are important, but it took 80 to 90 years for them to become reality."
Answered Jones, "You can't underestimate the value of words."
Bush's Democratic opponent, John Kerry, may tour the center Wednesday, depending on his schedule, aides said.
Kerry is expected to arrive in Cincinnati tonight and is scheduled to speak at the VFW convention Wednesday morning.
Bush's wife, Laura, is expected to visit the center for its dedication Monday. Portman said Mrs. Bush is a logical choice for the opening. She presided at its groundbreaking ceremony.
Sen. John Kerry may visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on Wednesday and Laura Bush is expected Monday.
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