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Ex-presidents launch private aid effort

White House taps Clinton, elder Bush

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Ex-Presidents Bush and Clinton will lead a tsunami relief campaign.
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Who should bear the main cost of aid and reconstruction after the tsunami disaster?
World governments
U.N. and international bodies
Bill Clinton
George W. Bush

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former Presidents Bush and Clinton launched a joint effort across partisan lines to raise money for victims of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunamis after the White House tapped them Monday to lead an effort to drum up private donations.

President George W. Bush named his two immediate predecessors on Monday, saying, "The greatest source of America's generosity is not our government; it's the good heart of the American people."

Flanked by his father and Clinton, Bush told reporters at the White House, "I have asked two of America's most distinguished private citizens to head a nationwide charitable fund-raising effort."

The two men will "ask Americans to donate directly to reliable charities already providing help to tsunami victims," the president said.

Both former leaders emphasized that cash, rather than goods, is what relief agencies need right now.

"It's better to give the aid agencies the money and let them spend it as they need it the next several weeks," Clinton said on CNN's "Larry King Live."

"I want people here at home in America and throughout the world who are listening to this program to know that if you only have a dollar, $5, $10 to give -- if a million of you do, that you'll make a huge difference," Clinton said.

Both presidents said American charitable efforts could boost the image of the United States abroad.

"What is being seen around the world is something that a lot of people in these afflicted countries might not realize happens, and that is when there's a tragedy outside of our shores, America comes together," the elder Bush said.

"That sends a strong message around the world of our own true compassion," Bush said. "I think a lot of good can come out of this horrible disaster."

The United States has pledged $350 million in tsunami aid, the largest single contribution by a government after Japan's $500 million.

The president and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is visiting southern Asia, have said additional tens of millions of dollars will be spent on U.S. military operations to assist the victims. Even more millions have been raised through donations from private citizens.

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

U.S. officials said Bush made phone calls on the matter right away and raised the pledge when the scope of the devastation became clear.

"All week long, as we announced the smaller amounts," Powell said, "I made it clear and the president made it clear that we knew those numbers would rise. But you can't just throw a number out. You have to get some sense of what is needed."

In an earlier interview with CNN, both of the former presidents rejected criticism that President Bush and the United States were slow to respond.

"I don't see how he could have done more," said Clinton, sitting with the president he defeated in 1992.

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," he said. "It's about caring. And the president cares."

Earlier Monday, the two former leaders joined President Bush and first lady Laura Bush on a visit to the embassies of the four hardest-hit countries -- Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

"You can't help but be moved," the elder Bush said. "I noticed President Clinton talking to a woman in one of the embassies who lost both her mother and her father and a brother, I believe it was, and it just breaks you up."

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 triple that pledge later.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother who has overseen disaster relief efforts after hurricanes in his state, is visiting the region with Powell. (Full story)

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

"The devastation in the region defies comprehension," he said, noting that U.S. flags are flying at half-staff through Friday to honor the victims.

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," he said.

Private donations may alleviate pressure on the U.S. government -- which faces its largest deficit -- to contribute more money.

Norway announced plans Monday to raise its pledge from $16 million to about $180 million -- an 11-fold increase that would make its contribution the single largest per capita pledge of any nation by a wide margin.

With a population of a little more than 4.5 million, Norway's pledge would come out to approximately $39.50 per citizen. The U.S. pledge of $350 million comes out to $1.19 per person.

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