LOS ANGELES -- President Bush looked into the face of riot-ravaged Los Angeles for the first time yesterday and saw a desperate yearning for help.
Almost everyone the president encountered -- from the politely critical people who met with him personally to the rudely cynical ones who shouted at him from outside closed meetings -- said that much more is needed to heal the wounds than a brief moment of attention in a political year.
"People can't just come here for a hot minute -- for a month or two -- and get excited about doing something and just walk away," said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Urban League, who joined Mr. Bush for a look at the devastation left by the riots. "His actions are going to speak louder than this visit."
Mr. Bush kept insisting throughout the day that his intentions were not political, even though winning California is critical to his re-election this year. He said that he really wanted to learn about the needs of the battered.
"We've got plenty of time later in the year for politics," he told a meeting of black community leaders. "I want to hear, just all bark off, as to what you think we can do. And please speak frankly about it."
Dereke Carr, 30, the manager of a ransacked food store that is one of the few buildings left standing in a once-thriving shopping center, said he asked the president to come back in better times.
"Because if he comes to see the improvements, then we'll all know things are better," said Mr. Carr, who participated only grudgingly in photo sessions. "He told me he would but said if he gets caught up in the bureaucracy to send him a note. I hope the note gets through."
Later, a community activist who attended a church service where Mr. Bush spoke about the importance of family values and joked about an admonishment from his wife, Barbara, said she was already disappointed.
"I didn't hear anything he said that would help this community," said Teresa Allison. "We know about family. What's he talking about his wife for? Half our black young men are in jail. We've got to do something about that."
Still others complained that Mr. Bush had waited too long to show his concern about Los Angeles.
"Why didn't he get on TV right away?" asked Doris Moore, 34, who stood with an angry crowd outside the Mt. Zion Baptist Church. "He might have been able to prevent some of the killing."
The smell from week-old fires still hung in the air when the president began his tour yesterday morning. The desolation of half-standing buildings and rubble burned past recognition made the commercial strip in South Central Los Angeles look like a war zone.
Mr. Bush didn't seem as awed by it as Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp, who has been using the riots to resurrect his urban agenda.
Mr. Kemp slung his jacket over one shoulder and fell back from the tour group to peek into the charred shells of a laundromat, hardware store and pharmacy, telling reporters that he was "sick to my stomach."
The president seemed more intent on listening to Mr. Carr and other business leaders as they told him of the horror that followed the verdict in the Rodney King beating case nine days earlier.
The grocer told him that he watched three fellow blacks, all of them his own employees, join in the looting of other stores at the shopping center.
Dr. William Faulkner, a black dentist whose shop survived only because he had a Rottweiler chained outside, talked about trying to explain what happened to his own children.
"We are embarrassed by interracial violence and prejudice," the president said at the church. "We're ashamed. We should take nothing but sorrow out of all that and do our level best to see that it's eliminated from the American dream."
In separate meetings later, representatives of the Korean-American community, whose businesses were often singled out for destruction, echoed the arguments of many black leaders that the federal government bears some of the blame for the enmity that continues.
"The federal government's failure to deal with the plight of African-Americans is what caused the riots," said John S. C. Lim, head of the Korean-American Bar Association of Southern California.
"The federal government has the affirmative and highest duty to make the victims whole."
The president occasionally became emotional during his long day of listening. His voice broke a couple of times, and he said his heart ached for those who had lost a life's worth of work.
Mr. Bush insisted the riots are "not something we saw for an ugly moment that will be forgotten." But he did not come prepared to make specific long-range commitments about what actions he will take.
"I can't over-promise; our resources are limited," he told the community group in Koreatown.
Although his staff had been combing through the executive agencies for new programs he might unveil today, the president talked mostly about short-term relief efforts that have already been announced.
Even that wasn't enough for Helen Lim, a grocery store owner who complained that the government wasn't moving fast
enough for business people who have been totally wiped out.
"We can't wait two weeks, three weeks for so-called aid," she said. "We don't need promises -- we need action now."