Ex-Presidents Team Up For Charity

Former presidents Clinton (left) and Bush (right), who are leading the U.S. fund-raising campaign for tsunami victims, wait their turn as President Bush signs the condolence book at the Sri Lankan embassy in Washington D.C. 1-3-04
AP
President Bush enlisted two former presidents for an ambitious private fund-raising drive for victims of the deadly tsunami on Monday, asking Americans to open their wallets to help the millions left homeless, hungry and injured.

"The devastation in the region defies comprehension," said Mr. Bush, as he announced the campaign to be led by his father, George H.W. Bush, and former president Bill Clinton. "I ask every American to contribute as they are able to do so."

The confirmed death toll for Asia and Africa stood at 139,410 - almost 100,000 of those in Sumatra - but relief workers said they expect the toll to soar by tens of thousands because surveys of the western coast of Sumatra show it was hit a lot harder than previously thought. Scores of villages have been flattened and in some areas, few survivors have been spotted.

The confirmed death toll has risen daily. It now stands at 139,410 Tuesday. Indonesia has been worst hit with 94,081 deaths, Sri Lanka has 30,196, India 9,493 and Thailand 5,187.

To help in what he called "this urgent cause," President Bush urged Americans to send money instead of other items and restrict their giving to "reliable charities already providing help to tsunami victims." The Freedom Corps Web site is providing "donate now" links to about five dozen such organizations.

"Cash donations are most useful," the president said. "I've asked the former presidents to solicit contributions both large and small."

The president plans to make a personal contribution, according to a spokesman, as does Mr. Clinton, who says it will be "substantial."

The president's parents have already gotten started.

"We've sent a check, for Barbara and me, a fairly large check, to Americares," said former president Bush. "But it could well have been any of these other organizations."

In an interview with

, Mr. Clinton was supportive of the Bush administration's efforts so far in response to the disaster.

"The main thing that's important to me is that he has shown compassion," said Mr. Clinton, pointing to the $350 million pledged by the U.S. and the U.S. Navy helicopters at work in Indonesia now, ferrying emergency supplies.

Former president Bush agrees that the U.S. is on target with the relief effort. "I'm not one of those who want to say - as some official did - say we're being stingy, only to have to retract it once they found out what was going on."

Mr. Clinton adds that while the relief effort might help the U.S. image in that part of the world, being a good neighbor is the reason for doing it.

"We ought to be doing it because we want more people to live full lives," said Mr. Clinton. The message of the relief effort for victims, he said, should be: "We don't care what your religion is, we don't care what your politics are - we hate what happened to you."

Monday, President Bush, his wife, Laura, and his two predecessors paid brief sympathy visits to the embassies of the four nations hit hardest - Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. The first lady brought bouquets of white roses, and the president wrote messages in embassy condolence books, offering prayers as well as promises of U.S. aid.

At the Indian Embassy, President Bush said he planned a visit to the world's largest democracy sometime this year. "In the meantime, though, our country stands with the people who have suffered," he said.

The president ordered that all American flags fly at half-staff this week in sympathy for "the victims of a great tragedy," particularly the many thousands of dead and orphaned children.

Meanwhile, the president is getting daily reports from a delegation he dispatched to the region to assess whether the United States government can do more.

In Thailand, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the nation's leaders, "We are in solidarity with you ... The United States will certainly not turn away from those in desperate need."

Powell said, "The aftermath of the tsunami is a tragedy for the entire world ... I think we have demonstrated in recent days our willingness to provide support."

Powell, who is leading the team with the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, did not rule out more U.S. government money. But he said there was no immediate need to increase the $350 million commitment because the most urgent task was coordinating all the aid that was pouring in - the vast majority still unspent.

"There is no shortage of money at the moment," said Powell, as he arrived in Bangkok.

The secretary of state stressed a two-prong U.S. commitment of financial support and military support to help the region recover.

At a news conference with Powell, the Thai government said it would welcome U.S. technical assistance for an early warning system for tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

Gov. Bush, no stranger to massive relief efforts following hurricanes in Florida, said dealing with needs beyond the immediate emergency will be difficult.

"Irrespective of how much tragedy is taking place, there will be a way to get food and water and medicine to people," he said. "The long-term recovery issues are the ones that are a greater challenge, and the ones where I think the expertise of our country can be brought to bear to really help people."

The Pentagon is sending a 1,000-bed hospital ship, the USNS Mercy, to the tsunami zone, adding to the large network of ships, planes, helicopters and other U.S. military resources helping to deliver hundreds of thousands of tons of supplies ranging from medical equipment to drinking water. The Mercy will take about a month to get to south Asia.

In Washington Monday, the president said the United States jumped into action quickly and has taken a leading role, despite criticism that America's response was neither swift nor leading, especially at first. Bush promised a long-term investment in the recovery by the United States. Other countries were quicker to commit large amounts of aid money, and Japan has outpaced the U.S. pledge, which was increased tenfold on Friday to the $350 million.

"As men and women across the devastated region begin to rebuild, we offer our sustained compassion and our generosity, and our assurance that America will be there to help," said President Bush. Later, he told new lawmakers that Congress' first order of business should be to provide disaster aid.

Administration and congressional aides said the $350 million would come mostly from a U.S. Agency for International Development account for international disaster assistance, and perhaps from the Defense Department as well.

The officials said that by next month, the Bush administration is likely to request money to replenish the USAID and Pentagon coffers. There were widespread expectations on Capitol Hill that the administration will eventually request more money, perhaps exceeding $1 billion.

"We need to look at the issue before we throw a lot of aid in there," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said in a brief interview. "I'm not opposed to putting more money into aid, but I think we need to find what the problems are."

Even before the White House campaign, private donations had been running at virtually unprecedented levels since immediately after the earthquake that led to the tsunami.

Under the new fund-raising drive, to be coordinated by the White House's USA Freedom Corps, an office that encourages volunteering, Clinton and the first President Bush will solicit donations by doing media interviews and traveling the country. They also will tap into their own networks of contacts to seek donations from corporations, foundations and the wealthy.