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Ex-presidents discuss aid drive

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Ex-Presidents Bush and Clinton will lead a tsunami relief campaign.
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George W. Bush
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Monday tapped two former presidents -- his father, President George H.W. Bush, and his predecessor, President Clinton -- to head up a massive campaign to help raise private donations for victims of the Asian tsunamis. (Related story)

During an interview with CNN, the first President Bush said he and Clinton want to emphasize to Americans "that a private donation of cash is more important at this stage of the recovery than sending things, items, tents, whatever."

Clinton, sitting with the president he defeated in the 1992 election, said they will also help to raise money for specific necessities, such as medical supplies and water purification treatment.

"We want to convince people to shift from in-kind to cash and to do it even if they can only give a little bit," he said.

Both former presidents rejected criticism that President Bush and the United States were slow to respond initially to the tsunami disaster that has killed nearly 155,000 people.

"I don't see how he could have done more," Clinton said.

And the elder Bush defended his son, saying the criticism of the administration is part of the "inside-the-Beltway game."

"That's not what this is about. It's about saving lives. It's about caring. And the president cares," he said. "You got to know the president. You got to know what's in his heart. I guess I know it better than anybody."

President Bush, along with the first lady, the elder Bush and Clinton, visited the embassies of the affected countries Monday. "I can tell you it had a big impact on the people there, and it will in the countries affected," Clinton said.

In announcing that his two predecessors would launch the appeal for private donations, Bush said, "The greatest source of America's generosity is not our government; it's the good heart of the American people."

He said, "To draw even greater amounts of private donations, I have asked two of America's most distinguished private citizens to head a nationwide charitable fund-raising effort.

"Both men, both presidents know the great decency of our people. They bring tremendous leadership experience to this role. And they bring good hearts."

The U.S. government has pledged $350 million in tsunami aid, the second largest single contribution behind Japan's $500 million. Bush has said that pledge could increase.

Tens of millions of more dollars have been raised through private and corporate donations.

U.N. officials have said it will cost billions of dollars over a period of years to rebuild the destroyed region. The World Bank, which has pledged $250 million, said Sunday it may double or triple that pledge down the road.

On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers are concerned that the federal government not commit an even greater sum to the effort while the nation is already facing a deficit. They hope private donations to the region will help alleviate some pressure to do so.

Bush was criticized for initially pledging $15 million, and then raising that to only $35 million in the days after the disaster struck. He was also rebuked for not speaking publicly on the matter for the first three days.

But U.S. officials said Bush was making calls on the matter right away and raised the pledge when the scope of the devastation became clearer.

Bush on Monday said the government is "in close contact with the governments of the affected countries. And America is playing a leading role in the relief and recovery efforts."

Former President Bush is now the third member of the Bush family to officially join the effort. President Bush's brother Jeb, governor of Florida who has overseen disaster relief efforts after hurricanes in his state, is in the region with Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"Secretary Powell and Governor Bush will report their findings directly to me so we can ensure that our government provides the most effective assistance possible," President Bush said.

He said Americans have experienced natural disasters in the past -- although not on this scale -- and "have a history of rising to meet great humanitarian challenges and of providing hope to suffering peoples.

"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."

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