White House reaches out to children

Bush asks youngsters to donate dollar bills to aid Afghan youths

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 13, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In a 1938 radio address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged the nation's children to each send a dime to the White House to help in the fight against polio. The next day, only $17.50 arrived. The White House decided the campaign was a flop.

But by the next morning, the mail had caught up with the Depression-era effort, and 30,000 letters swamped the mail room. After four months, the White House received more than 2.6 million dimes -- $268,000 -- arriving in envelopes, embedded in wax, baked into cakes and glued into profiles of the president.

Now President Bush is hoping to encourage a similar spirit among American youngsters. He spent part of yesterday urging children to send the 2001 equivalent of a dime -- a $1 bill -- to the White House to help children in Afghanistan, a country long ravaged by internal strife, poverty and disease.

In a speech to the March of Dimes, an organization created in the battle against polio, the president urged children to start mailing in their dollars -- giving out the White House address and a special ZIP code to get them started.

"The Great Depression tested America's character and revealed America at its best," Bush told March of Dimes volunteers at a Washington hotel. "Americans have shown a similar strength since September the 11th. Terrorists hoped our nation would come apart. That's what they hoped for. But, instead, we've come together. Our country is more resolved, more united and guided by a greater sense of purpose than any time during our lifetimes."

Bush waved the fund's first donation, singling out the child who gave it to him: Justin Lemar Washington, 6, a March of Dimes "ambassador" from Miami in a small blue suit. Washington, who gave the dollar to Bush before the speech, donated part of his $3.50 weekly allowance -- money usually reserved for ice cream cones.

"It's kind of like therapy for kids," said Justin's mother, Dorenda Washington, adding that the idea was especially comforting for her child because the tragedy hit home for the family. A former American Airlines flight attendant whose husband is a Coast Guard officer dispatched to patrol off Norfolk, said her son needed a positive outlet for his worries.

The White House has reached out to young Americans repeatedly since Sept. 11. In TV interviews after the terrorist strikes, first lady Laura Bush praised children who were collecting pennies to help victims' families in New York and Washington. She also appeared in public service announcements urging parents to talk to their children about the attacks, listen to their fears and tell them they are safe and loved.

Youngsters have often gotten wrapped up in the patriotism of military campaigns. In World War I, Girl Scouts canned preserves and knit hats for servicemen overseas -- some even helped train carrier pigeons for use in war-related missions at home. In World War II, Boy Scouts collected tin foil and rubber for the war effort.

In the 1940s, comic books roused children's wartime emotions. Superman and Batman went from fighting crime to battling Nazis. In movie theaters, Bugs Bunny gave Japanese soldiers grenades that looked like ice cream. Children watched newsreels that rarely shied from violence. Cartoons stirred hatred of the enemy by using racist dialogue.

"There wasn't much effort to protect kids' sensitivities then," said William M. Tuttle Jr., a University of Kansas historian and author of Daddy's Gone to War: The Second World War in the Lives of American Children. "Now, this idea to donate dollar bills is more like a feel-good thing. The thinking might be if children are involved, their parents are more likely to be as well."

Bush's effort is to benefit Afghan children, whose problems the president blamed on Afghanistan's Taliban rule, against which much of the U.S. military campaign is directed. One in three children in Afghanistan are orphans, Bush said. One in four die before the age of 5, and almost half suffer from chronic malnutrition.

"We read about 3-year-old children in Afghanistan who weigh less than the average newborn in America," said Bush. "We're trying to get food to starving Afghans. In contrast, the Taliban regime, those who house the evildoers, has ... harassed international aid workers and chased them out of their country."

The aid is in part strategic, aimed at showing Muslims around the globe that the United States is not launching a war on them. Even as it prepared its military campaign against Afghan targets, the United States pledged $320 million in food and medicine there.

The White House enlisted the American Red Cross and the U.S. Agency for International Development to process the donations to America's Fund for Afghan Children.

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