Exclusive: Former Presidents on Hurricane Relief, Economic Crisis and Election

Exclusive: Presidents talk hurricane relief, the economy and debate fears.

September 24, 2008, 10:22 AM

Sept. 24, 2008— -- Former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush are joining forces to raise funds for recovery efforts following Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. In an interview with ABC News' Charlie Gibson today, the two stressed the importance of a long-term relief plan for the Gulf Coast, and expressed support for the $700 billion economic bailout plan being debated this week in Congress.

Clinton called the economic situation "a very great trauma" and Bush said, "I think to not have a deal would be unconscionable. So I think they'll come together and get something done."

The former presidents acknowledged the challenge of raising money for hurricane relief under existing economic circumstances.

Bush said they hadn't set a monetary goal for the effort. "I'm hoping we'll get quite a few million," he said. "I don't think we set a goal, but if we get $30, $40 million, we'll be off to a good start, and I think it'll be a good start, and I hope we will. We raised a lot more than that in Katrina, I think, but that would be a very good start."

Watch "World News with Charles Gibson" tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET for the full interview.

'Major Damage' From Recent Hurricanes

The duo made a surprise joint appearance at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting today in New York to announce the fundraising effort. The initiative, called the Bush-Clinton Coastal Recovery Fund, will target long-term relief and collaborate with officials from hard-hit areas to rebuild infrastructure.

Hurricane Ike, which made landfall earlier this month, caused severe damage, particularly in Galveston and Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States.

Ike's 110 mph winds obliterated thousands of homes and resulted in at least 61 deaths. Seventy-five percent of the homes in Galveston are still uninhabitable, there is still no power or drinking water, and returning residents have been encouraged to bring rat poison.

"Most Americans haven't absorbed how many people have really been hurt down there," Clinton said.

Bush called the situation on the Gulf Coast "devastating" and said that recovery would take "a long time."

"Forty-billion dollars in Texas alone," he said. "That doesn't include the neighboring Louisiana coast. Tens of thousands lost homes. ... Seven-hundred-seventy communities in 22 counties assumed major damage. So it's bad."

But the Texas resident, whose own foundation office still lacks power, said he didn't think the landscape of that part of the state had been changed forever by the storms.

"It will bounce back," he said. "It might look different, but a lot of it will be the same. It's not as though people are just saying, 'We don't want to go there anymore, we don't want to live there anymore because of another hurricane coming up.' People have a better spirit than that."

"I think what will happen here is what we saw in the Katrina area, and when we did the [2004 Indian Ocean] tsunami," Clinton added. "Any time you have this kind of disaster, the toughest part are the homes. That's what takes the longest to redo, to get everybody back in their homes. Then I think it also is an opportunity to try to do it and do it in the right way, make them more storm resistant and all of that. I predict to you it will be painful, but it can also be exciting if we do it right."

Clinton also raised the importance of restoring the barrier islands both in Texas and Louisiana, "to make it safer for the next time. ... But our focus, obviously, is just going to be on helping the people that need the help."

At today's announcement, Bush said that the "political odd couple" had returned.

The two championed similar relief efforts after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in December 2004.

In response to the devastation of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, the former presidents founded the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, launching a major fundraising effort to provide for long-term recovery in ravaged regions across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The charity raised $135 million, and distributed grants to charities like Habitat for Humanity and St. Thomas Health Services in New Orleans for rebuilding, filling in gaps not met by other relief organizations.

In 2005, the former presidents put political differences aside, teaming up to lead the U.S. effort to provide aid to victims of the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The duo traveled as emissaries to areas across Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. After seeing the devastating impact first-hand, the two carried the message across America, raising $1 billion in aid.

Presidents on Presidential Debates

Clinton said that he was impressed how both parties have come together to focus on the economic issues, especially as the presidential election nears.

"I think that shows that America can work and can rise to the challenges." he said. "I just wish that we could do it when we're trying to do something good together, and not when we're trying to stave off something bad."

The first presidential debate is scheduled for Friday, and Clinton commended the decision to move towards a less structured debate format.

"One thing I think these candidates did that was commendable was agree to a more free-flowing format and to have conversations with each other," Clinton said. "So I think that I'm going to be very interested to see whether their agreement to have more of a Lincoln-Douglas style, more open, back and forth, turns out to give us a less artificial debate."

The two former presidents who debated against one another said they were nervous at the time.

"I was nervous, Bush said. "I'm not a very good debater, and having a lot of time being tutored on what to say, if he says this, you say that and if she goes this way, you go that way. ... I'll be honest about it. I don't like the emphasis on debates, but it's a fact of life now."

Clinton concurred.

"What you sit there in mortal terror of is that your campaign will somehow be wrecked because you make a mistake that doesn't amount to a hill of beans in the larger scheme of things and that has no bearing on your fitness to serve and make the decisions that a president makes."

Both revealed that they prepared extensively, studying up on many issues until the last minute.

"I don't remember the actual hours, but it was rigorous, rigorous preparation, as well it should have been," Bush said.

"I always found the most frustrating thing was something I forgot to say, a point I forgot to make, because I was nervous or whatever, thinking about something else," Clinton said.

With two days until Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain face off in the debates, the former presidents offered their advice.

"Know what you're talking about and say it well," Bush said.

Clinton suggested trying to connect with voters back home.

"Try to be yourself and imagine that you were sitting in the home of four undecided voters that you like, and talk to them like you trust them to make a good decision," Clinton said.

Former Presidents on Current Financial Crisis

As for the economy, Bush and Clinton said that they expect Democrats and Republicans to come together to pass an economic bailout package.

"I think it is necessary to do some things to restore liquidity and confidence," Clinton said. "I personally think it's a time for us to try to make this as nonpartisan as we're trying to do this storm recovery."

Bush said, "I think they'll be a deal, incidentally."

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed chairman Ben Bernanke testified on Capitol Hill today and Tuesday, warning Congress that the situation is urgent and that the economy is facing the greatest threat since the Great Depression.

But many senators expressed outrage at the cost of Paulson's plan and debated whether the bailout should include more help for homeowners, as well as limits on Wall Street pay packages. President George W. Bush plans to address the nation tonight to win support for the plan.

In recent weeks, Clinton has called the existing proposal "insufficient," pushing for greater accountability and assistance for Main Street Americans.

But today he told Gibson that "there will be plenty of time when this is fixed" to examine what went wrong.

"Keep in mind, more than half of the American people directly or indirectly have a stake in the stock market," he said. So this is not Wall Street versus Main Street. This is, you have to do both and what's the best way to do it?"

Clinton said he wasn't concerned by the skeptical response of Congress to the proposal.

"I think the Congress wants more oversight, wanting to make sure that we take care of the individual homeowners as far as possible and wanting to see that the taxpayers can get their money back when possible," he said. "I don't have a bit of problem in the world with that. ... We ought to all just sort of calm down and follow the do-right rule here. We've been through a lot of very great trauma."

"It's their job to be skeptical," he said. "As people get up to speed on exactly what they're trying to do, which is to restore liquidity and confidence in the financial system and enable Americans to go about their business and borrow money and invest and grow and go, then they'll be talking not so much about whether to do this, but how to do it, especially when they understand. I'll be surprised if they don't get virtually all the money, the taxpayers."

Clinton also said he was in favor of more oversight of the financial industry.

"A market with no limits devours itself," he said. "That was the lesson of the first Great Depression. So the question is how do we do the sensible thing here without going too far one way or the other, and I think that'll require some debate, but we'll figure it out."

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