Bush skips the NAACP, criticizes leaders' remarks

But president claims support among members

July 10, 2004|By David L. Greene and Michael Dresser | David L. Greene and Michael Dresser,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YORK, Pa. - President Bush leveled an unusual attack on the NAACP's leadership yesterday, saying his relationship with those in charge of the Baltimore-based civil rights group has deteriorated to the point that it scarcely exists.

Bush spoke in response to a reporter's question about why he has again chosen not to attend the NAACP's annual convention, which begins this weekend in Philadelphia.

He is the first president in more than 70 years who has not attended a single NAACP convention, a fact that has angered the group's leaders.

"There are a lot of people I admire in the NAACP who support me," Bush said in an interview with reporters from the Allentown Morning Call and two other Pennsylvania newspapers during a trip through their state. But he added:

"The current leadership there has made their political decisions clear in very harsh ways. I describe my relationship with the current leadership as basically nonexistent because of their rhetoric."

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said he is disappointed in Bush's decision, adding that the president has turned down every request for a dialogue with the group since he was elected.

"If the president has a new mandate that says he will only meet with people that agree with him, then God save our nation," Mfume said.

White House aides said earlier this week that a scheduling conflict prevented Bush from attending this year.

Yesterday, though, Bush aides complained that NAACP leaders had turned belligerent toward the president, making him less willing to find time for them.

"The current leadership of the NAACP has certainly made some rather hostile political comments about the president over the past few years," said Scott McClellan, Bush's spokesman.

He referred, in particular, to comments made by Julian Bond, the NAACP's chairman, and Mfume.

Bond said in a speech last month that Bush's Republicans "draw their most rabid supporters from the Taliban wing of American politics."

And this week, after the president declined the NAACP invitation, Mfume, a former congressman from Baltimore, said, according to a report by the National Newspaper Publishers Association:

"We're not fools. If you're going to court us, court us in the daytime, but not like we're a prostitute where you run around at night or behind closed doors and want to deal with us, but not want to deal with us in the light of the day."

Bush aides cast the NAACP as just one group representing black interests and said the president had reached out in many other ways to African-Americans.

They stressed that he was drawing a distinction between the leadership of the civil rights group and its membership.

"I characterize my relationship with the membership as warm," Bush said in the interview with Pennsylvania reporters. "I've got good friends in the NAACP."

Mfume dismissed that claim in an interview with The Sun last night.

"That's like me saying I have great friends in the Republican Party but I'm not going to deal with them because of the president," he said.

Mfume admitted his comment about blacks being treated like prostitutes was an "inappropriate characterization" but said it was born out of "absolute and total frustration."

"I've tried to take a reasoned and measured approach to this president, but even the NAACP has a limit to its patience," he said.

Mfume said Bush's refusal to meet with such groups as the NAACP and Congressional Black Caucus are helping to energize African-American voters against Republicans.

"His actions are going to hurt good Republicans who are trying to do the right thing because they get tarred with this brush of intolerance and insensitivity," he said.

Mfume said the president's attitude toward critics differs from that of his Republican predecessors.

"His father and I philosophically didn't agree on a lot of things, but we talked," he said. "[Ronald] Reagan and I were diametrically opposed on a lot of issues, but we talked."

Mfume said that Bush got a warm response when he addressed the NAACP as a candidate in 2000 and that he could expect the same this year if he were to change his mind.

"I would love to have him, and I would guarantee him the same dignified reception he got last time," Mfume said.

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