FOUR YEARS ago, George W. Bush approached the NAACP convention in Baltimore with charming aplomb.
The Republican presidential candidate knew he wasn't likely to pick up many votes from the overwhelmingly black organization, which differed sharply with him and his party on a wide range of issues.
But he went in armed with self-deprecating humor, and the admonition that "our nation is harmed when we let our differences separate us and divide us."
President Bush proved to be prophetic about that, and nowhere is it more evident than in his refusal to speak to this year's NAACP convention, now under way in Philadelphia. Both he and the nation's oldest civil rights organization lost something important as a result.
His reluctance to return is understandable. He's been stung, he says, by "the rhetoric and the names they've called me."
Black leaders have been among Mr. Bush's most unrelenting critics, starting with the disputed 2000 election. NAACP chairman Julian Bond charged Sunday that Mr. Bush's victory came thanks to "an outright theft of black votes."
Former Baltimore Rep. Kweisi Mfume, now NAACP president, accused Mr. Bush of "intolerance and insensitivity" and compared his refusal to speak at the convention to treating black voters like "a prostitute" to be dealt with only "at night or behind closed doors."
And yet such vituperative talk is also understandable, considering that Mr. Bush's tenure has confirmed the worst fears of black Americans leery of him during the 2000 race. Most distressing has been his appointment of judges with poor records on civil rights, as well as his inaccessibility to black lawmakers - despite contending four years ago, "I believe there is so much that we can do together."
So, the NAACP convention, a regular stop for presidential hopefuls since the 1920s, has been punished for its protests with the loss of prestige that comes with a visit from the White House incumbent.
But Mr. Bush has hurt himself more. He has lost the chance to demonstrate the class and courage his NAACP audience admired in 2000, and to show he understands that if the nation is to be reunited, the president must lead the way.