NBC News and news services
updated 1/3/2005 5:32:33 PM ET 2005-01-03T22:32:33

President Bush named former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush to lead a nationwide charitable effort Monday for victims of the south Asian tsunami. The former rivals agreed that the best thing Americans could do was to donate money, which they said was needed desperately to pay for one of the largest humanitarian campaigns ever mounted.

“The greatest source of America’s generosity is not our government," the president said at a news conference at the Roosevelt Room, with his two predecessors at his side. “It’s the … heart of the American people.”

“In the coming days, Presidents Clinton and Bush will ask Americans to donate directly to reliable charities already providing help to tsunami victims,” he said. “I’ve asked the former presidents to solicit contributions both large and small.”

Bush ordered that U.S. flags fly at half-staff all week in sympathy for “the victims of a great tragedy,” particularly the many thousands of dead and orphaned children.

Later Monday, Bush, accompanied by Laura Bush and the former presidents, paid brief visits to the embassies of the four nations hit hardest by the disaster — Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

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In a joint interview with NBC News, both former presidents said the visits drove home the enormity of the challenge in south Asia.

At the Thai Embassy, the elder Bush said, “there was one who had lost her mother and father and sister, and then under one tree there was a little rubber duck and a little fish. You know, it all symbolizes the children that are hurting.”

While they said they recognized that that Americans might want to donate supplies like food, water or clothing, both men said what was needed was money.

“Give cash to one of these established organizations,” Bush said, directing donors to the Freedom Corps, the federal volunteerism agency his son created in 2002.

Clinton said: “The American people have already done a fabulous job coming up with lots of money and lots of in kind contributions. ... If you give money — even if it is a small amount of money — it will aggregate up, and they will send it to the aid agencies on the ground, and they will spend it right there for what is most needed.”

The announcement of the charity drive came as the White House has been scrambling to repair an image battered at home and abroad by perceptions that U.S. aid lagged behind that of other countries — especially in light of the outpouring of support for America from other countries immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But Clinton defended the administration, telling NBC’s David Gregory: “This country has a very good record in emergency disasters like this. ... President Bush has already committed $350 million [and] says there will be more.”

The elder Bush acknowledged that some critics had accused Washington of stepping up its relief effort to “elevate the standing of the United States, but that is not why we are doing it. This is not why President Clinton and I are involved in it.”

“This is one of those things where you just follow the ‘do-right rule’ and hope it works out,” Clinton added. “If the United States is seen as being on the side of building that kind of world, a world where our common humanity means more than our differnces, then that will be good, but that isn’t why we should do it. We ought to do it because they need help, and we are doing it because it is the right thing to do.”

The president is waiting to hear back from a delegation he dispatched to the region to assess what more the U.S. government could do. That team, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, arrived in the region Monday.

NBC’s David Gregory and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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