Bush, NAACP relationship thaws

Civil rights leaders say meeting is encouraging but doesn't ensure results


Some national civil rights leaders say this week's private meeting with President Bush offers hope for an end to frosty relations, but others insist an hourlong talk is no guarantee that the Republican White House will become responsive to their agendas.

Yet, on one point, all were in agreement: New NAACP President and Chief Executive Bruce S. Gordon made the meeting a reality. And now that Gordon has made headway, some wonder whether African-American leaders can begin what will surely be a glacial process of establishing close ties to the Bush administration.

"I think this is going to be helpful for the NAACP and the White House, no doubt about it," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, who did not attend this week's meeting but was involved in conversations leading up to it.

And while the White House meeting is a start to better relations, Cummings said it was no assurance that the nation's oldest civil rights group will influence Bush policies. After all, the president has refused five consecutive invitations to speak at the NAACP's conventions, prompting stinging criticism of him from the group's chairman.

"Don't get me wrong, if you put this on the scale of a love relationship, it's not quite dating, let alone engagement or marriage," Cummings said. "But I think it's an opportunity to talk. And I think that's probably a good thing."

Others argued that little would come of the meeting, saying they doubt any civil rights leader could sway an administration that has not made civil rights a priority.

"There are a lot of top-drawer issues that are dominating the agenda right now - the war, budget and tax-cut issues," said David Bositis, an expert on black politics at the Joint Center of Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "It's not just Bush, but even if Bush wanted to do something differently, there's still the question of Congress. I don't see the leadership of this Congress having any kind of civil rights agenda on their plate."

Wednesday's meeting brought together senior White House staff with nine black leaders, including: National Urban League President and Chief Executive Marc Morial; Donna Brazile, a Democratic political consultant; Rep. Melvin Watt, a North Carolina Democrat and head of the Congressional Black Caucus; and Dorothy Height, president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women.

When Gordon arrived at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People five months ago, he said establishing a relationship with Bush would be among his top priorities. Gordon seized the opportunity shortly after the government's botched response to Hurricane Katrina, which thrust race and poverty in the nation's consciousness.

He visited the region shortly after the storm. Then, on Sept. 14, Gordon and Morial organized a gathering of about 50 black leaders from across the country at Howard University to craft a strategy urging Bush to be more responsive to storm victims. The event is largely considered the impetus for this week's meeting with Bush.

At the meeting were such prominent African-Americans as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, actor and humanitarian Harry Belafonte, Cummings and six other members of Congress, and members of the Executive Leadership Council, an organization of top black businessmen.

Gordon and several attendees sent Bush a list of their concerns about Katrina, requesting he mention them in a speech the next day.

"I was impressed because in his speech he talked about a number of the things we were concerned about," Cummings said.

A week later, Gordon met with Bush at the White House, a first for an administration that had refused requests by NAACP leadership. Former President Kweisi Mfume and current Chairman Julian Bond had spent years chastising Bush, claiming he was the first sitting president since the Depression not to address the group; Gordon was in the door after just two months on the job.

Bositis said Gordon, a retired Verizon executive, appeals to the president with his corporate background.

"Gordon was probably invited because he is a businessman, and he was going to react differently than past NAACP leadership," Bositis said. "Bush sees himself as somebody who can deal with businessman. That works to Gordon's advantage."

While experts on black politics agree Gordon has made inroads where others have not, his meetings with Bush have been hushed. This week, Gordon would not provide details on the meeting but said it went well. In a statement, he said, "We have the potential to produce meaningful and measurable results."

Gordon declined to be more specific Wednesday night and could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Meanwhile, other participants would not comment in detail on the White House meeting.

"It was a very cordial, candid meeting," Brazile said. "I felt very encouraged as someone with family from the Gulf Coast that the White House has a game plan in place to continue to help the people rebuild their lives."

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