USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal world-wide newsbox lead again with varied responses to the Asian tsunami, both material and symbolic. President Bush asked both his father and Bill Clinton to spearhead a private fundraising drive, even as his brother Jeb Bush and SecState Colin Powell arrived in Bangkok on the first leg of their tour of the devastated region. “We’re showing the compassion of our nation in the swift response,” Bush said in the most ubiquitous sound bite. “But the greatest source of America’s generosity is not our government. It’s the good heart of the American people.”
The New York Times off-leads its tsunami catchall and leads instead with House Republican leaders’ surprise about-face last night, as they abandoned plans to undo an ethics rule that was used to admonish majority leader Tom DeLay three times last year, and also reversed a controversial rule change that would have allowed DeLay to keep his job even if he is indicted by a Texas grand jury that is investigating potential campaign finance violations. According to the Post, the Republican rule reversal came amid growing dissension among the party’s rank and file. The change was also intended to torpedo Democrats’ plans to use the weakened rules to attack the GOP leadership. “It allows the Republicans to focus on the issues, the agenda that is before us, and not to have Tom DeLay be the issue,” said Tennessee Rep. Zach Wamp in the NYT. “I feel like we have just taken a shower.”
Inside, USAT catches late word that the provincial governor of Baghdad was assassinated along with six bodyguards, after gunmen ambushed his armored BMW early this morning. The killing comes after a day after a wave of suicide car bombings and other attacks claimed at least 21 lives and Interim Prime Minister Allawi called Bush to express concern about the situation.
The WP fronts word that the Bush administration is close to coming out with a specific plan to cut Social Security benefits in the coming decades. According to “several Republicans close to the White House,” the administration will propose changing the formula that sets initial Social Security benefit levels, a move that could cut benefits by a third by mid-century. “This is going to be very much like sticking your hand in a wasp nest,” said a conservative Social Security analyst who nevertheless supports the move. “And the reaction will be similar.” So, what’s the headline for this hot item? “SOCIAL SECURITY FORMULA WEIGHED.”
The WP’s tsunami lead eschews the presidential theatrics for another look at the relief itself, which is still having trouble finding its way to those who need it (despite one of the largest humanitarian mobilizations in U.S. military history, with some 14,000 troops committed and 25 ships en route or already in the region). In Indonesia, international aid groups have been able to deliver only one eighth of the more than 400,000 tons of food that has arrived. The Post says the road down Sumatra’s west coast from Banda Aceh is cut off after only seven miles, where a bridge over a muddy river lies mangled; most people below that point are almost entirely without aid.
“My heart goes out to those along the Sumatra coast, because we’re not even there, and those were the hardest hit,” says the U.N.’s relief coordinator Jan Egeland. “Are they tens of thousands, are they hundreds of thousands that we’re not reaching? I don’t even know.”
The WP’s lead also mentions that some 30,000 people in Burma may need emergency assistance, according to the World Food Program, despite much rosier assessments delivered by the country’s repressive military regime, which has so far admitted only 90 casualties. One computer simulation cited by the Post projects that the wave would have hit the country with as much force as it did in Thailand, where thousands perished.
The situation is still dire in India’s remote Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, where outside aid groups are still not allowed to reach those who may be in need, according to the Christian Science Monitor. The Times of India reports that some 60 percent of two inhabited islands in the chain is still submerged, and the WP says it appears several islands have disappeared completely or been shifted north by the quake itself.
The WP takes a gruesome tour of a makeshift mortuary set up inside a Buddhist temple in western Thailand, where forensics experts are collecting DNA samples of the hundreds and hundreds of “bloated, disfigured and decomposed” corpses that are accumulating there from among the country’s thousands of dead. “It’s too many, too many,” a forensic technician says. “It’s hard even to express my feelings.”
The WSJ, however, fronts a feel-good piece on the aid efforts mounted by a small Muslim village for its Hindu neighbors in Tamil Nadu, the worst-hit region in southern India (subscription required). And in Sri Lanka, the NYT fronts an extraordinary development of its own: signs of cooperation between the government and the Tamil Tigers, whose shaky cease-fire had been unraveling before the disaster. The paper describes Tamil and government soldiers working together to repair some roads and low-level representatives of both sides meeting in the north of the country to coordinate the distribution of relief aid there. “We see people strongly affected by” the tragedy, a Western diplomat said. “They think about the possibility of working together and the necessity to do so.”
And, finally, the papers all present yesterday’s ex-prez aid announcement and symbolic Jeb-in-Asia visit as at least partly calculated to erase the perception that the U.S. government has been slow to come to terms with the breadth of the tragedy there. But it’s the CSM that manages to conjure the most cynical money quote: “It’s like the Mastercard commercial,” one foreign policy expert says. “Cost of [the aid effort]—there’s a dollar figure to it. The goodwill it buys—priceless.”