President Bush was heavily criticized because he did not cut short his Texas ranch vacation and return to Washington to express the nation's condolences in the wake of the human suffering that followed the tsunami that killed tens of thousands in Asia.
This may have been one of the reasons that the United Nations' top emergency response official said, clearly casting aspersions at the United States, that wealthy countries were "stingy" in their response to the catastrophe. He later recanted, but it was too little too late.
From a purely practical point of view, there was nothing Bush could have done in Washington that he couldn't have done in Texas, including dramatizing the nation's concern and playing a statesmanlike role in leading the mercy missions.
But he didn't, at least for several days. And politically speaking, that was a terrible strategic error. It opened the way for former President Bill Clinton, visiting England, to play his "I feel your pain" card, making Bush look insensitive.
Bush is not insensitive, not from the standpoint of being a caring, compassionate Christian man, which he clearly is - but he is insensitive to the critically important role that symbolism plays in politics. European leaders understand that role, which is why several of them returned to their capitals, Clinton style, to show how much they care.
Bush didn't make his presence felt until Wednesday, when he announced that Americans mourn the tragic loss of life and that the United States was helping form an international coalition to coordinate worldwide relief and reconstruction efforts. This was the right thing to do, but it should have been done a couple of days earlier. Next time let's hope the president gets out in front sooner.
The "stingy" remark, pointedly aimed at the United States by the U.N.'s relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, was a slander, perhaps triggered by the anti-Americanism that is rampant in the international agency.
The U.S. government contributed $35 million to the relief effort - $5 million more than Japan, the second-highest donor nation. The European Union nations, combined, didn't come close to what the U.S. and Japan sent. France's contribution was a paltry $136,000. Now, that's stingy.
Not included in the U.S. emergency relief aid are the hundreds of millions raised by volunteers. Unlike other countries, volunteerism is Americans' principal means of giving. It's key to how our country works. The rest of the world simply doesn't understand that. If they did, they'd never call us "stingy."