Numerous conservative pundits attacked former President Bill Clinton for his December 28 remarks to the BBC Radio 4 program Today about the December 26 earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 150,000 people in South Asia. For example, on the January 3 edition of FOX News' Hannity & Colmes, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter leapt on Clinton's statement that "I think it's really important that somebody take the lead" in coordinating relief efforts to claim that he was "attacking" President Bush and "milking" the tsunami in order to remind people of "what a big heart he has." And on December 29, nationally syndicated right-wing radio host Neal Boortz described Clinton's remarks as "phony compassion" from a "famous publicity whore."
But Clinton did not attack Bush in his comments to the BBC (see transcript below). Moreover, Clinton's comments on the tsunami disaster relief operation were only a portion of the interview, which dealt also with the broader topics of world poverty and international aid. The interviewer explained that, while "guest editor [musician and activist] Bono wanted to hear from [Clinton] about aid and economic reform," "when we did speak, we had to talk about the tsunami and its aftermath as well."
On the day the BBC broadcast the Clinton interview, the Bush administration took a veiled shot at the former president. As The Washington Post reported on December 29, after the administration increased U.S. relief efforts to $35 million from the initial commitment of $15 million, a White House official explained Bush's delayed involvement in publicly handling the tsunami relief effort: "The president wanted to be fully briefed on our efforts. He didn't want to make a symbolic statement about 'We feel your pain.'"
Numerous conservative media figures followed with attacks on Clinton. On December 29, Boortz responded to the BBC interview by telling Clinton to "shut up and go away." On the December 29 edition of CNN's Crossfire, co-host Robert D. Novak said: "Unlike Bill Clinton, George W. Bush doesn't jump in front of the TV cameras every time there is a disaster large or small to tell the victims he feels their pain." In a December 29 column titled "Clinton Talks Tsunami; Bush Administration Provides Aid: Guess Who is Criticized?" conservative columnist and radio talk show host Steve Yuhas attacked the media and Clinton as "the man that Europe loved and that America impeached." Also December 29, the right-wing website NewsMax.com reported that Clinton "st[ole] the media limelight" from Bush. On December 30, the conservative magazine The American Spectator labeled Clinton a "Bush humiliator" and quoted an anonymous former Clinton staffer as saying the interview was "classic Clinton." On the January 3 Rush Limbaugh Show, nationally syndicated radio host Limbaugh accused Clinton of "try[ing] to undermine Bush." That evening on Hannity & Colmes, Coulter accused Clinton of "complain[ing] that Bush was too slow to respond" to the disaster.
Here is the portion of Clinton's BBC interview relating to the tsunami:
JIM NAUGHTIE (presenter): I spoke last night, on this subject [the tsunami] and on broader questions, to Bill Clinton, the former American president. Our guest editor [musician and activist] Bono wanted to hear from him about aid and economic reform as part of the poverty theme that he wanted to highlight on today's program. You'll be able to hear more of the interview at half past 8. But of course when we did speak, we had to talk about the tsunami and its aftermath as well. And here was Bill Clinton's reaction to the disaster:
CLINTON: Unbelievable. I saw the map today on how it worked. It was like one of these horror movies that we've been seeing. You know, it's also a great opportunity. I remember after the Turkish disaster [1999 earthquake], I actually went into the refugee camps in Turkey and sat in the tents and talked to the people. And as awful as it was, and it was really awful for those particularly who'd lost their loved ones, there was a sense of shared humanity and possibility. Not only because the United States and Europe and others had tried to help them in the aftermath, but because the Turks and the Greeks had helped each other. And so there was this sense that somehow, this horrible natural disaster had reminded us all that we have more in common than we do dividing us. And then, what happens is, the emotional pull of the cause weakens as time passes.
So, I think on this Asia issue, there will be an enormous outpouring. People will give money. They will send food and clothes, and they'll do whatever they're supposed to do. And then life will begin to creep back to normal. I think it's really important that somebody take the lead in this. The E.U., the Japanese, the United States. And analyze what the real damages are, country by country, and what their capacities are to deal with them and then allocate responsibilities. I think one of the problems is when everyone takes responsibility it's almost like no one's responsibility. And one of the things I was thinking about, looking at that map today and seeing the damage going all the way to Somalia from the tsunami, and trying to imagine what it was like with that ocean going 500 miles an hour, is that maybe what we should do is to try to get specific countries or groups of countries to take responsibility for particular countries that were hurt. And I think if you did that you'd have a better chance of seeing the responsibilities fulfilled over a period of time, even when the emotional tug waned.