WASHINGTON -- President Bush enlisted two former presidents for an ambitious private fund-raising drive for victims of the deadly tsunami on Monday, asking Americans to open their wallets to help the millions left homeless, hungry and injured.
"The devastation in the region defies comprehension," Bush said as he announced the campaign to be led by his father and Bill Clinton. "I ask every American to contribute as they are able to do so."
Bush, his wife, Laura, and his two predecessors paid brief sympathy visits to the embassies of the four nations hit hardest -- Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. The first lady brought bouquets of white roses, and the president wrote messages in embassy condolence books, offering prayers as well as promises of U.S. aid.
At the Indian Embassy, Bush said he planned a visit to the world's largest democracy sometime this year.
The president ordered that all American flags fly at half-staff this week in sympathy for "the victims of a great tragedy," particularly the many thousands of dead and orphaned children.
Meanwhile, the president was getting daily reports from a delegation he dispatched to the region to assess whether the United States government can do more.
Gov. Jeb Bush, no stranger to massive relief efforts following hurricanes in Florida, said dealing with needs beyond the immediate emergency would be difficult.
"Irrespective of how much tragedy is taking place, there will be a way to get food and water and medicine to people," he said. "The long-term recovery issues are the ones that are a greater challenge, and the ones where I think the expertise of our country can be brought to bear to really help people."
Even before the White House campaign, private donations had been running at virtually unprecedented levels since immediately after the earthquake that led to the tsunami.
Under the new fund-raising drive, to be coordinated by the White House's USA Freedom Corps, an office that encourages volunteering, Clinton and the first President Bush will solicit donations by doing media interviews and traveling the country. They also will tap into their own networks of contacts to try to pry donations from corporations, foundations and the wealthy, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
To help in what he called "this urgent cause," Bush urged Americans to send money instead of other items and restrict their giving to "reliable charities already providing help to tsunami victims." The Freedom Corps Web site -- www.usafreedomcorps.gov -- was providing a "donate now" link to about five dozen such organizations.
"Cash donations are most useful," the president said. "I've asked the former presidents to solicit contributions both large and small."
Bush himself plans to make a personal donation but has not done so yet, McClellan said.
Also Monday, the Pentagon decided to send a 1,000-bed hospital ship, the USNS Mercy, steaming toward the affected area, adding to the large network of ships, planes, helicopters and other U.S. military resources helping to deliver hundreds of thousands of tons of supplies ranging from medical equipment to drinking water. The Mercy will take about a month to get to south Asia.