Already facing criticism over the response to Hurricane Katrina, President Bush suffered another public-relations setback when his mother on Monday suggested that people living in emergency shelters might be better off than they were before being displaced from New Orleans.

Reporting on concerns about how Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, could absorb potentially hundreds of thousands of evacuees that may or may not return to their homes, the American Public Media program “Marketplace” interviewed former first lady Barbara Bush.

“Almost everyone I’ve talked to says ‘We’re going to move to Houston,'” she said, while touring the Houston Astrodome with a group that included her husband and former President Bill Clinton, who were chosen by her son, the current president, to head up fund raising for hurricane relief.

“What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas,” she continued. “Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality,”

“And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, they were underprivileged anyway. So this,” she said, chuckling quietly, “is working very well for them.”

Picked up by Editor & Publisher, the quote made its way around cyberspace, showing up on the Daily Kos and other blogs.

A blog on The Nation commented, “Finally, we have discovered the roots of George W. Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism.'” described it as the former first lady’s “Marie Antoinette moment,” a reference to the queen of France guillotined during the French revolution that legend has it uttered the insensitive remark upon hearing complaints that peasants didn’t have enough bread, “Let them eat cake.”

The quote also was carried by the Associated Press and reported in the New York Times.

Her comments came as the two former presidents visited with hundreds some 23,000 hurricane victims inside the Astrodome and announced the creation of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund. Within hours, the fund raised more than $2 million in on-line donations.

According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Americans have donated more than half a billion dollars to charities aiding victims of the flood. Corporations led the way, with Wal-Mart alone donating $17 million, on top of another $15 million given to various organizations by the Walton Family Foundation, created by the family of Wal-Mart’s founder.

Despite the outpouring of support, officials worried about the long-term impact of what is believed to be to be the largest mass relocation of Americans since the Civil War.

The New York Times reports that 400,000 people were forced out of New Orleans, and many others were forced to leave their homes in Mississippi and Alabama. At least 12 states have taken in evacuees.

An estimated 200,000 are in Houston alone, taking up most of the city’s hotel rooms and forcing Houston to begin canceling conventions.

“It is an immense task,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said as a shelter at the Reliant Center was being set up to accept 8,000 people. “This is just the beginning of what will be many months.”

Meanwhile, debate erupted over media using the term “refugee” to describe displaced storm victims.

“It is racist to call American citizens refugees,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson said he believes the word suggests that evacuees are criminals or second-class citizens.

President Bush appeared to agree with Jackson. Meeting with leaders of volunteer organizations, Bush told reporters on Tuesday: “You know, there’s a debate here about refugees. Let me tell you my attitude and the attitude of people around this table. The people we’re talking about are not refugees. They are Americans, and they need the help and love and compassion of our fellow citizens. And the people at this table are providing that help and compassion and love.”

According to the Associated Press, the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention describes a refugee as someone who has fled across an international border to escape violence or persecution. The Webster’s New World Dictionary defines it as “a person who flees from home or country to seek refuge elsewhere, as in a time of war or of political or religious persecution.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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