AUSTIN, Texas -- Cheap irony and Christmas don't go well together. Christmas and war is another bad combination. But there it is. The only president we've got went down to the Capitol Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., the other day for a photo op with people who can't afford to eat.

"I hope people around this country realize that agencies such as this food bank need money. They need our contributions. Contribution are down. They shouldn't be down in a time of need," said GeeDubya Bush.

Right away, we notice real progress. When Bush was running for the presidency in 2000, the feds released their annual report on hunger in America, and Texas was once again in its perennial spot at the top of the list, No. 1 in Hunger.

Bush thought it was some dastardly scheme by the Clinton administration to make Texas, and hence Bush, look bad. He denied there were any hungry people in Texas and said, "You'd think the governor would have heard if there are pockets of hunger in Texas." Yeah, you would. But look on the bright side: so he didn't know there's hunger in Texas after six years in office; after only two years in Washington, he's discovered the problem.

Sort of. Here's what he has done about it:

-- Number of seniors who will be cut off meal programs because of Bush budget: 36,000.

-- Number of families who will be cut off of heating assistance because of the Bush budget: 532,000.

-- Number of homeless kids who will be cut off of education programs because of Bush budget: 8,000.

-- Number of kids who will be cut off of after-school programs because of the Bush budget: 50,000.

-- Number of kids who will be cut off of child care because of Bush budget: 33,000.

-- Number of workers who will be cut off of unemployment insurance on Dec. 28 because of Bush budget: 1 million.

Actually, members of Congress have promised to rush back to the Capitol after the holidays to fix the unemployment insurance cut-off, so with any luck those folks will have only a bad couple of weeks. However, those who have already exhausted their benefits or who will see their eligibility expire in coming months are S.O.L. unless the Democrats' plan to reauthorize and expand the benefits is endorsed by Bush. Happy New Year to the 2.5 million out-of-work people who depend on this lifeline.

Question: Which news got more attention from the media -- Bush's photo-op at the food bank or the facts in his budget?

It's commendable of the Prez to urge us to contribute to food banks, but since his No. 1 domestic priority is to enrich the rich while leaving the poor to charity, we are stuck with a quandary he noted himself -- need is up, and contributions are down. And as the charities themselves have been screaming for years, they cannot possibly replace government programs.

On the theory that the world will be saved not by irony but by empathy, I'd like to quote the end of an article in The New York Times Sunday Magazine about adopting Ethiopian AIDS orphans. This beautifully written account about saving a handful of the millions of African AIDS orphans was written by Melissa Fay Greene, the adoptive mother of one of the orphans. She reports of her new daughter, "One day not long ago, she collapsed in my arms to cry about her late mother. I held her as she writhed, wailing, ‘Why she had to die?' A few moments later, she said, amid tears: ‘I know why she died. Because she was very sick, and we didn't have the medicine.'

"'I know,' I said. ‘It's true. I'm so sorry. I wish I had known you then. I wish I could have sent her the medicine.'

"'But we didn't have a phone,' she cried, ‘and I couldn't call you.'"

Pretend that they have phones -- the AIDS orphans and the homeless kids and the hungry families -- pretend that they can call you and tell you how desperate their needs are. And if you can only save one orphan or help one homeless kid or feed one hungry family once, well, that's something, isn't it? And it's Christmas.

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