Bush recognizes distrust by blacks

He speaks to NAACP for 1st time in office

July 21, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush acknowledged bitter strains between his party and African-Americans in an appearance before the nation's oldest civil rights organization yesterday that offered reminders that the president and Republicans remain deeply unpopular among black voters.

Addressing the NAACP's annual convention for the first time as president, Bush drew a warm response when he promised to sign into law a renewal of the Voting Rights Act that cleared Congress yesterday.

"I understand that racism still lingers in America," said Bush, who received a polite but reserved reception as he outlined priorities he said he had in common with blacks, such as rebuilding the Gulf Coast, improving education and expanding home ownership.

"What I want to do is work with the NAACP to help fix the foundations of our society," Bush said.

Some said they were happy to receive Bush and hear him express support for the voting rights measure.

Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights called it "one of the most effective speeches of his tenure" and "a new political high" for Bush.

But the audience delivered its most animated reaction when Bush referenced black voters' deep suspicion of Republicans.

"It's a lot easier to change a law than to change a human heart, and I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party," he said.

With shouts of "Yes!" and the standing ovation that followed, the audience signaled its affirmation of Bush's nod to the resentments that had built. But attendees said little would be improved by one visit from the president during an election year.

Despite his administration's stated determination to reach out to black voters - including numerous overtures by Ken Mehlman, the Republican Party chairman, to African-American groups - Bush has failed to build goodwill in the black community, attendees and analysts said. His efforts have been set back by factors such as the unpopular war in Iraq, the government's botched response to Hurricane Katrina in the largely black city of New Orleans and the appointment of conservative judges with poor civil rights records.

Bush has excelled at symbolic moves designed to appeal to African-Americans, attendees said, including naming blacks to important positions in his administration. (The highest-ranking of those, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, accompanied Bush to the NAACP gathering. Top political adviser Karl Rove was also there.)

"In symbolism, they've done a magnificent job. What they've failed at, in an extraordinary way, is pushing an agenda that has resonance in the African-American community," said Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia. "It's an insult to suggest that you're going to get African-American votes based on symbolism."

David Bositis, a specialist on black voters at the nonpartisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said the visit would have no impact on the view that most African-Americans have of Bush and the Republican Party.

"African-Americans don't trust George Bush. They don't approve of any of his policies. They view him with great suspicion," Bositis said.

The wariness was evident in a statement from Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, who said Bush "said the right words, but time and time again, he has failed to back up such words with action. To truly make an impact, today's photo-op must include a follow-up."

Bush's remarks included an appeal to black voters.

"I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historic ties with the African-American community. For too long, my party wrote off the African-American vote and many African-Americans wrote off the Republican Party," Bush said, adding that the division is "not good for our country."

He also talked about the nation's history of slavery and discrimination - "a stain that we have not yet wiped clean" - and said he wanted to work with the NAACP "to help fix the foundations of our society."

Bush, who said he wanted to "change the relationship" between his party and African-Americans, began his speech with humor, describing NAACP Chairman Bruce S. Gordon, who introduced him, as "a polite guy."

"I thought what he was going to say [was], `It's about time you showed up,'" Bush said to laughter and applause. "And I'm glad I did."

The last time Bush addressed the group was during the 2000 campaign, shortly before the NAACP began running ads highlighting his opposition, as Texas governor, to hate-crimes legislation. The ads featured the daughter of James Byrd Jr., a black Texas man brutally murdered in 1998.

A wary murmur rippled through the audience when Bush said he came "from a family committed to civil rights." Some booed when he spoke of his support for charter schools, which many Democrats and civil rights groups complain drain money from the public school system.

At one point, a heckler could be overheard yelling about Vice President Dick Cheney, the war in Iraq and the Middle East. NAACP officials said the man, who was escorted from the hall, was a follower of Lyndon LaRouche, an idiosyncratic occasional presidential candidate who rails against the Bush administration, especially its prominent neoconservatives.

Some of Bush's critics voiced anger at Bush's appearance, calling it a political ploy.

"This wasn't a civil rights speech. It was a political speech," said Leroy W. Warren Jr., a Maryland NAACP delegate. The speech, he said, was directed more to "middle-class white people" than to African-Americans.

"This was Operation Political Rescue for George W. Bush and his party, and he was using the black people to do it," Warren said, calling Bush's visit "a fraud."

julie.davis@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.

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