Where's George?

Published December 29, 2004 7:59PM (EST)

Yesterday, while the rest of the world was watching aghast as the Asian tsunami death toll rose for the third straight day, it seemed a little improper to War Room that America's president seemed to be taking the disaster in stride. Midway through a holiday at his Crawford ranch the president spent Tuesday morning "clearing some brush," according to White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy.

As the death toll surpassed 45,000 on Tuesday, not much appeared to have changed. Associated Press correspondent Deb Reichmann reported that Bush had spent the day "biking," "strolling around his ranch," and "pondering tax reform." To be fair, Reichmann did note that he was monitoring the disaster -- and having some friends over, too.

But while Bush remained out of sight in Texas, his predecessor struck a higher profile. "It is really important that somebody take the lead in this," former President Bill Clinton said on the BBC's Today Programme. "I think one of the problems is when everybody takes responsibility, it's almost like no one's responsibility."

Clinton's comments -- and their tacit suggestion that Bush was passing the buck -- didn't sit well with the White House. As the Washington Post reported after Clinton's BBC appearance, "Many Bush aides believe Clinton was too quick to head for the cameras to hold forth on tragedies with his trademark empathy. 'Actions speak louder than words,' a top Bush aide said, describing the president's view of his appropriate role." Another of the Post's White House sources took an even less thinly veiled jab at Clinton: "He didn't want to make a symbolic statement about 'We feel your pain.'"

But Clinton's comments -- and the widely allegation by a U.N. official that Western countries were being "stingy" with disaster relief funds -- may have led the White House to take a more empathetic tack. At a meeting with the press, Bush announced that he'd made calls to the leaders of the worst-hit countries, and assured them that the United States' relief effort "is only the beginning of our help."

"This has been a terrible disaster," the President went on to say. "I mean, it's just beyond our comprehension to think about how many lives have been lost. I know that our fellow citizens are particularly troubled to learn that many of the deaths were young children, and we grieve for their families, their moms and dads who are just, you know, heartsick during this -- during these times."

By Jeff Horwitz

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