Bush praises Urban League, says GOP has 'work to do'

Audience's response to president is polite, but not enthusiastic

July 24, 2004|By Edwin Chen | Edwin Chen,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DETROIT - Laying claim to "a solid record of accomplishment" on civil rights, President Bush told the National Urban League yesterday that he had reached out to blacks and suggested that Democrats take their support for granted.

"There is an alternative this year," Bush said. "Take a look at my agenda."

But it is precisely his record that many black leaders found wanting.

"He's closed his door on black voters [while embracing] ideologically divisive, polarizing policies," said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who occupied a front-and-center seat for Bush's speech. He dismissed the president's appearance as "a symbolic gesture."

Bush addressed the Urban League shortly after turning down an invitation from the NAACP because of what White House officials characterized as "hostile" remarks about Bush by leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Bush's roughly 1,500 Urban League listeners received him politely, rising to their feet when he arrived. But they applauded only tepidly, if at all, when the president uttered lines that unfailingly elicit roaring responses from partisan Republican crowds.

At first appearing tentative and even a bit nervous, Bush quickly loosened up, exchanging quips with several in the audience, including Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, a one-time contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.

At one point, the crowd murmured its agreement and burst into applause when Bush acknowledged: "I know, I know. The Republican Party has got a lot of work to do. I understand that."

As the din faded, the president said to Jackson: "You didn't need to nod your head that hard, Jesse."

Bush won less than 9 percent of the black vote four years ago, a margin that he and his campaign hope to improve upon in November. Sen. John Kerry, his Democratic rival, addressed the Urban League's annual conference on Thursday.

After his speech, Bush flew to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he plans to stay during next week's Democratic National Convention. His appearance in Detroit drew more attention than it might have otherwise because it was hastily scheduled after he spurned the NAACP's speaking invitation.

Bush had also turned down an Urban League invitation for Thursday, citing a scheduling conflict. He campaigned on Thursday in Illinois while Kerry addressed the Urban League.

The Urban League, community-based, business-oriented group, does not engage in partisan politics, although many of its members also belong to the far more politically active NAACP. Bush had also addressed the Urban League in 2001 and 2003.

During his 39-minute speech on Friday, Bush ignored the NAACP but lavished praise on the league, calling its members "dignified, decent American citizens."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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