Nobel Peace Prize winner Betty Williams apologized Thursday for saying she could kill President Bush, remarks that drew scorn from Bush loyalists and shook up the International Women’s Peace Conference in Dallas.
“My feelings now and again get way ahead of me,” Ms. Williams said. “I couldn’t kill anybody, but I must confess that I’m extremely angry with the Bush administration and what they have done. To say that was wrong.”
Conference organizers immediately sought to distance themselves from her speech Wednesday night, but it brought a swift rejoinder from the White House, dominated some radio talk shows and drew a flurry of hateful e-mails to attendees.
Questioned about her speech Thursday morning, Ms. Williams initially denied making the comment but reversed course after organizers confirmed the quote.
In a speech before 1,000 people Wednesday, Ms. Williams said that violence is a choice and the push for peace takes hard work and commitment.
“Right now, I could kill George Bush,” she said. “No, I don’t mean that. How could you nonviolently kill somebody? I would love to be able to do that.” As she made her point, she chuckled and some members of the audience laughed.
Ms. Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for creating a group that helped start peace talks in Northern Ireland, also said that Mr. Bush should be impeached. About half the audience responded to that with a standing ovation.
The speech, given in the city that will host Mr. Bush’s presidential library, caused a stir on talk radio and Internet sites, and among those attending the conference.
“Threatening the president of the United States is a crime,” conservative talk show host Mike Gallagher said on his nationally syndicated program, which airs in Dallas. “Many of us are resentful at a so-called Nobel Peace Prize laureate having the audacity to threaten the life of our commander in chief.”
Several women at the conference said they admired Ms. Williams for having the courage to say what she thought – even if unpopular.
“It was an incredible act of bravery to make that statement in Texas,” said Lucinda Marshall of Louisville, Ky., who added that the anti-Bush rhetoric appealed to her. “When you have a president that’s consistently breaking the law, you do not have a democracy. You have a dictatorship.”
White House spokesman Blair Jones called Ms. Williams’ comments “surprisingly hostile rhetoric coming from someone who has been recognized for promoting peace.”
It wasn’t the first time Ms. Williams has spoken critically of Mr. Bush. Last July, she made an almost identical comment about wanting to “kill George Bush” to a group of schoolchildren in Brisbane, Australia. She said her point was that it is hard to be nonviolent when there are so many atrocities in the world.
Ms. Williams said Thursday that the focus on her comments about Mr. Bush was a distraction from her more important message about peace.
“I’m just really passionate about my work. Sometimes it’s ‘open mouth, insert foot,’ ” she said. “I’ll spend the rest of the day saying I’m sorry to everybody.”
Conference chairwoman Carol Donovan stressed Thursday that the conference is nonpartisan and that Ms. Williams’ views are her own.
“The remarks were spoken from her heart and were based on her own concern and opinions,” she said. “With over 1,000 delegates, you can imagine the range of opinions is very wide.”
Peace conference delegates talked about the speech Thursday between workshops on issues like genital mutilation and globalization.
Nancy Sonntag, a Dallas psychotherapist who has worked with Iraq war veterans, said she is not a Bush supporter but called Ms. Williams’ comments “totally inappropriate.”
“I was a little disappointed in her response,” Ms. Sonntag said, referring to the conference’s overarching question of how to achieve peace. “I don’t think that’s the solution I was looking for. There are so many other problems.”
Unda Sigera of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, said people in her country are generally supportive of Mr. Bush – if they talk about him at all – because he increased the amount of U.S. aid to Africa. “I do not know much about America,” she said. “Back home, they don’t say anything about Bush because this is beyond their say.”
Beth Weems Pirtle of Farmers Branch, a past state president of the United Nations Association and a volunteer at the conference, described herself as a friend and longtime supporter of Mr. Bush’s, but she said that she has become increasingly opposed to the administration.
“Betty Williams was right on target in a lot of what she said,” Ms. Pirtle said. “On Sept. 11, he had the world at his feet. He dropped the ball. He let the neocons around him take advantage of him.”
Conference organizers reported that a Dallas police detective was working with hotel security to review about 40 hateful e-mails received in response to Ms. Williams’ speech.
They wouldn’t say whether anyone was threatened.
Assistant Police Chief Ron Waldrop said police presence at the Adam’s Mark Hotel and Conference Center was not increased as a result of the speech. “We have people that work with protesters and monitor controversial events,” he said. “We do that on a routine basis.”
Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren in Washington declined to comment, but a Dallas agent said Ms. Williams had not been questioned and there were no plans to do so.
And Ms. Williams said she did not fear for her safety.
“If I would have been concerned about my safety,” she said, “I wouldn’t have started the peace movement in Northern Ireland.”
Staff writers Todd J. Gillman, Jason Trahan and Tanya Eiserer contributed to this report.