3 presidents stand together to launch Haiti relief drive

Three presidents from opposing parties stood united outside the White House this morning to signal the launch of an aggressive private fundraising drive for the earthquake-stricken nation of Haiti.

"These two leaders send an unmistakable message to the people of Haiti and the world," Obama said of the former presidents flanking him in the Rose Garden. "In a moment of need, the United States stands united."

Obama, in turning to his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, and Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, has borrowed a page from the Bush playbook in the aftermath of a South Asian tsunami that claimed a massive toll in 2004: Bush tapped Clinton and the president's father, former President George H.W. Bush, to spearhead fundraising.

"This is a model that works," Obama said.

Bush spoke bluntly of the challenge posed by an earthquake that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and left the Haitian capital in ruins -- and he spoke even more bluntly about what Americans can do.

"Our hearts are broken when we see the scenes of little children struggling without a mom or dad, or the bodies on the ground or the physical damage of the earthquake," Bush said. "The most effective way for Americans to help the people of Haiti is to contribute money.

"I know a lot of Americans want to send blankets and water," Bush said with a knowing nod, looking at the cameras: "Just send your cash."

Clinton, who also already is serving as the special United Nations envoy to Haiti, said of the earthquake's survivors: "Right now, all we need to do is get food and medicine and water and a secure place for them to be." But in the long term, he said, the rebuilding of Haiti will require a sustained effort to capitalize on what could be an opportunity.

"I believe that, before this earthquake, Haiti had the best chance in its history to escape their history," Clinton said. "I still believe it. . . . But it's going to take a lot of help and a long time."

Obama, making his fourth public address on the Haitian crisis in four days, also suggested that the intense media attention focused on the island nation now soon will shift to other areas. It will be the job of Bush and Clinton, he said, to keep American generosity focused.

"In times of great challenge in our country and around the world, Americans have always come together," Obama said today.

"At this moment, we are moving forward with one of the largest relief efforts in history," Obama said, and his predecessors will ensure that the U.S. government's own commitment of $100 million and rising will be matched by contributions from "beyond the government."

The White House has created a website for the fundraising effort that the two presidents will lead: www.clintonbushhaitifund.org.

Obama, citing "destruction and suffering that defies comprehension, said "we also know that our longer-term effort will not be measured in days and weeks. It will be measured in months and even years."

"Here at home, Presidents Bush and Clinton will help Americans do their part," the president said. "This time of suffering can and must be a time of caring and compassion."

When he had spoken this week with each of his predecessors, Obama said today, "they each asked the same simple question: 'How can I help.?' " In the days ahead, he said, they will be enlisting the help of many more Americans.

Following a half-hour private meeting in the Oval Office this morning, Bush stood to Obama's left during a brief appearance outside. Clinton stood to Obama's right.

The two former presidents each spoke of their personal involvement with Haiti -- Bush citing his wife's journey there to oversee U.S.-sponsored efforts at AIDS prevention, Clinton complimenting the Bush administration for its work on disease prevention.

"The Haitian people have got a tough journey," Bush said, suggesting that catastrophes "bring out the best of the human spirit. . . . President Clinton and I are going to work to help tap that spirit."

Clinton, in 1975, celebrated his wedding in Haiti, traveling there for a delayed honeymoon with a wife who is now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- making her own first journey to the earthquake-stricken nation today.

"I have no words for what I feel," Clinton said today. "I was in those hotels that collapsed. I had meals with people who are dead. The cathedral church that Hillary and I sat in 35 years ago . . . is rubble. It is still one of the most remarkable places that I have been."

mdsilva@tribune.com

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