`Get over' NAACP criticism, group's chief urges president

Mfume warns that Bush may hurt GOP candidates by shunning convention

July 11, 2004|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - Warning that President Bush might be hurting the election chances of Republican candidates by shunning the NAACP's annual convention here, the civil rights group's president re-invited the president yesterday to speak and called on the White House to "get over" its displeasure with criticism from the group's leaders.

"At some point in time, you've got to get over it," National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Kweisi Mfume said during a news conference as the group's 95th annual convention began. He suggested that the president's absence would be seen by many black voters as writing them off and might spill over to other campaigns.

Mfume, a former Baltimore congressman, acknowledged that he and Julian Bond, the NAACP's chairman, had harshly criticized the president and his administration on several occasions recently. Mfume offered fresh criticism yesterday, giving the Bush administration a "C" grade for its policies affecting African-Americans and suggesting that the president was doing a disservice to his re-election effort and to his office if he were willing to meet only with those who agree with him.

"If I got 9 percent of the [black] vote four years ago, won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote, I'd be concerned that I couldn't tolerate any slippage," Mfume said.

A call to the White House press office yesterday seeking comment was not returned.

If he does not relent, Bush would be the first president since Herbert Hoover not to address the Baltimore-based civil rights group. Though he addressed the group's meeting in Baltimore when he was running for president in 2000, Bush has turned down invitations the past four years. Late last month, in a letter released yesterday by the NAACP, the president's appointments director wrote that Bush would be unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict.

But on Friday, during a campaign swing through Pennsylvania, Bush lashed out at the NAACP leadership when asked why he was again skipping the convention. "There are a lot of people I admire in the NAACP who support me," the president told Pennsylvania reporters. But he said his relationship with the group's leaders was "virtually nonexistent because of their rhetoric."

A White House spokesman later referred to a speech by Bond last month in which he said that the Republicans "draw their most rabid supporters from the Taliban wing of American politics." The spokesman also pointed to Mfume's remarks last week, as reported by the National Newspaper Publishers Association, in reaction to Bush's declining the NAACP invitation to attend its convention.

"If you're going to court us, court us in the daytime," Mfume was quoted as saying, "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."

Mfume apologized for the prostitute remark yesterday but said his outburst was driven by frustration over his inability to meet or communicate directly with President Bush since the 2000 election. He said the lack of response to his letters and invitations over the past four years made him feel like the protagonist in Ralph Ellison's classic novel of black alienation, Invisible Man : "You're invisible and don't count."

The NAACP president said that he and other black leaders had had differences with other Republican presidents but managed to maintain dialogue. Mfume recalled how NAACP delegates applauded candidate Bush when he addressed the convention in 2000.

Mfume said he shook Bush's hand at his first State of the Union address in early 2001 and offered his support, which he said the president welcomed. But, Mfume said, "that's the last I heard from him."

The 8,000 people expected to attend the convention are scheduled to hear Thursday from Bush's Democratic challenger, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who will be accompanied by his running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

"I'm hoping the president will change his mind," Mfume said. "We think democracy is enhanced by having both candidates here."

NAACP delegates arriving yesterday at the Philadelphia convention center said that while the president was unlikely to get many votes from their ranks, his refusal to speak would only weaken his support among blacks. "It'll just deepen him more in the hole," said Clifton Marvel, 57, a retired bus driver and local NAACP officer from Natchez, Miss.

"If he wants our votes, he should have been here, to show his face around," said Domieque Perkins, 19, of Kankakee, Ill.

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