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Former presidents on a mission to help tsunami victims

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It’s rare to see these two former political adversaries together, but former Presidents Bill Cinton and George Herbert Walker Bush were united in a mission to help tsunami victims. 

Together, both former presidents will bring the charitable effort to the news, and help focus the attention on the need for individuals and businesses in this country to send the relief to agencies— primarily cash— to those agencies which can really direct it appropriately in the hardest hit areas. 

NBC’s David Gregory sat down with the former presidents about their joint effort. Below is a transcript:

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS: What do you make of some of the criticism leveled against this administration and this president – that the administration was slow to respond to the disaster?

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT:  This country has a very good record in emergencies, disasters like this.  And every year I was president, America gave between 25 and 33 percent of the world's aid to disasters.  The same thing was true when President Bush was in office. 

Look what happened.  You had the American military helicopters dropping supplies into the remote areas of Aceh in Indonesia— people desperate to get them.  President Bush has already committed, what, $350 million and says there is going to be more. 

But I don't think we should even waste time talking about that.  Look at this.  We've got what, 150,000 people dead?  Potentially, maybe even more.  Tens of billions of dollars of immediate needs. 

And America has got a good record. And the president is doing a good job.  And he asked us to help.  And we're just trying to help. American people are dying to do something, and we're going to help them. 

GREGORY: President Bush, do you think there will be a need for even more U.S. money from the government in excess of $350 million? 

GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT:  I don't know the full requirements, and I think we wait until Secretary Powell and the governor of Florida, incidentally, come back, see what they have to say.  But I'm sure nothing is enough.  But this argument, I thought really grateful to President Clinton for putting it in perspective. 

I've only heard it once, the stingy argument.  And it was picked up by the press a little bit.  But you don't hear it anymore, because they see a lot going on. Also through the private philanthropies, but you see the government responding with helicopters and a lot of other ways, too.  So I think that was a passing thing.  And I think we're on the right track.  And if you go to these four embassies like we did, I'll tell you, they expressed eternal gratitude for what the United States is doing. 

GREGORY: President Bush, let me pick up on another point.  Indonesia, as you know well, is the most populous Muslim nation in the world.  Particularly after the tension that is associated with the Iraq war, is it important for the United States to show in a very large way, that it can use its might for humanitarian purposes and not just its military might? 

BUSH:  You put it better than I could.  But yes.  Absolutely.  And I think we're doing that.  And I think—I'm—perhaps I'm naive, I know I'm old, but maybe a disaster like this can bring people together.  Whether it's in Sri Lanka or whether it's in Indonesia.  And I'm very optimistic that out of these terrible, terrible disasters, we're going to find maybe some people in Indonesia, some of the extremists might say, we want to help. 

There was one woman at one of the embassies today, was it Thailand?  Who was there.  She'd lost her mother and father...

CLINTON:  And sister. 

BUSH:  And sister.  And then under one tree is a little rubber duck and a little fish, you know.  And all this symbolizes the children are hurting.  And so out of these tragedies, I'm optimistic enough to believe that these countries can come together.  Sri Lanka helping India, vice versa.  And that's very important. 

GREGORY:  Do you think there's a particular need in this part of the world for the U.S. to change some hearts and change some minds? 

BUSH:  Well, I think so.  Because in some areas in the Muslim world, we are not fondly looked upon today.  I think that for the most part, this will elevate the standing of the United States.  But that's not why we're doing it.  It's certainly not why President Clinton and I are involved in it. 

CLINTON:  This is one of those things where you just follow the do right rule and hope it works out.  And keep in mind that, my fondest hope here is that this will enable countries to resolve some of their internal problems. 

Aceh, the hardest hit remote area in Indonesia, is the site of a big separatist movement.  I hope that there will be some reconciliation coming out of the effort to rebuild.  Sri Lanka has had a lot of trouble over the last several years.  Peace process was a little stalled.  You have got Buddhist temples now in America wanting to send goods to Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, but they want it given out to the Hindus, and the Muslims and the Christians, as well as the Buddhists.  So maybe we can get some reconciliation. 

If the United States is seen as being on the side of building that kind of world, a world where our common humanity matters more than our differences, then that will be good.  But that shouldn't be why we do it.  We ought to do it because they need help, and we're doing it because it's the right thing to do. 

GREGORY: President Clinton, you've said in recent days that even when the international community mobilizes, there can really be coordination problems, getting the aid to where it needs to go.  Given the fact that there's still some tension between the United States and other large countries in the world, given the size and the scope of the U.S.  assistance, do you think it is time for an American to lead the United Nations, and would you like that job? 

CLINTON:  Well, we're here to talk about this aid relief.  Let me give make two serious comments about the problem you raised.  First of all, President Bush got together a group of nations to work together to eliminate a lot of this overlap. 

Secondly, the United States is now working with the U.N. on this, and the U.N. humanitarian effort is one of the charities cited on the White House Freedom Corps Web site.  So they're trying to get coordination.  The FEMA director is with Colin Powell and Jeb Bush in the area today. 

So I think we're going to avoid that.  And I'm going to avoid your question, because I don't even think it's realistic.  I can't imagine anything like that would ever happen. 


But would you like it? 

CLINTON: What I would like to do is to see the United States and the U.N. reconciled.  I would like to see strong support in the United States for the U.N., and I would like to see the U.N. universally recognized as having no serious operational problems.  We need a strong and effective U.N.  I think President Bush feels the same way.  And that's what I want. 

GREGORY: Final point in our remaining seconds: I think this is the first time we've seen you two gentlemen, two former political combatants coming together for this kind of joint effort.  A little strange to be working together? 

BUSH:  I learned a lot from him.  I learned how to lose gracefully and go away.  And I haven't done an interview with you, because my son is president of the United States.  The fact that he's here, and I'm here, we're here as friends and we're here with, I think, mutual respect.  Certainly I respect what he's doing and has been doing when he was president and with his life.  So I think it's good.  And I hope it sends a signal around the world that we've come out of a divisive political period, and we're together, and we're Americans.  And we're proud. 

You put your finger on something.  The fact that we are supporting vigorously to aid countries that are predominantly Muslim, that will send a very important message, I think.