- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2002

President Bush yesterday hailed Martin Luther King as a "modern American hero" and welcomed his widow to the White House as black support for the president continued to soar.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Rod Paige announced that the president's proposed budget includes $350 million for programs to strengthen black and Hispanic colleges, an increase of $12 million over current funding levels. Mr. Bush has pledged to boost such funding 30 percent by 2005.

"To honor the legacy of Dr. King, we must continue to support the institutions that offer our minority and disadvantaged students opportunities through higher education," Mr. Paige said. "We have committed the resources to get that job done."

In an East Room ceremony, Coretta Scott King presented Mr. Bush with a portrait of her husband "to hang in the White House as an ever-present reminder of the power of the dream."

"Mrs. King, thanks for this beautiful portrait," the president said. "I can't wait to hang it."

The remark drew loud laughter from those in attendance, but Mr. Bush quickly made clear how seriously he regards King's legacy.

"Perhaps without Martin Luther King, there might still have been a Civil Rights Act," the president said. "There's no doubting that the law came as it did, when it did, because of him."

Black support for Mr. Bush has more than doubled since the war against terrorism began. Some polls have shown black support for Mr. Bush skyrocketing to 75 percent to 80 percent.

During the first months of his administration, he enjoyed the support of roughly a third of blacks, according to public opinion polls. Exit polls indicated that Mr. Bush garnered just 8 percent of the black vote in the 2000 election, the lowest level for any major party candidate in 28 years.

Mr. Bush noted that President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in the East Room in 1964, giving one of the pens to King. He also pointed out that the overt racism existing in America in the middle of the 20th century had been decimated by the dawn of the 21st.

"Standing in the White House, marking a national holiday in Dr. King's memory, we are now two generations and a world away from Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham as he knew them," Mr. Bush said. "Their movement rose from generations of bitter experience: the slights, the cruelties, the pervasive wrongs that marked the lives of many black Americans."

The president also made a reference to the confrontational tactics of today's civil rights leaders, which contrast sharply with King's pacifism.

"His most powerful arguments were unanswerable, for they were the very words and principles of our Declaration and Constitution," Mr. Bush said.

"When he came to this capital city and stood before the figure of the Great Emancipator, it was not to assail or threaten," he added. "He had come to hold this nation to its own standards."

The White House has little expectation of capturing the black vote in 2004.

The president's advisers remember that black support proved fleeting for his father, former President George Bush.

Although the elder Bush won just 12 percent of the black vote in 1988, a whopping 72 percent of blacks approved of the job he was doing during the Gulf war in 1991. The next year, he garnered only 10 percent of the black vote against Bill Clinton.

Still, if the younger Bush can parlay his current popularity among blacks into a pickup of even a few percentage points in 2004, the results could be harmful to the Democratic nominee, who historically counts on overwhelming black support.

At the end of ceremony, Mr. Bush signed a proclamation designating yesterday, Martin Luther King Day, a federal holiday. The civil rights leader, who would have turned 73 Jan. 15, was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., by James Earl Ray.

Mrs. King flew to Washington with first lady Laura Bush from Atlanta, where the two women attended a memorial service for King.

"I can't help but believe that Dr. King would have been pleased with the recent education bill that was overwhelmingly passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by my husband," Mrs. Bush said in Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

"And I know that he would have supported the principle behind the legislation, which is that no child shall be left behind," she added.

Mrs. King agreed.

"My husband believed that expanding educational opportunity was essential for social and economic progress for all of Americans," Mrs. King said in the East Room. "And so I want to congratulate you, Mr. President, for your leadership in securing a bipartisan consensus for educational reforms."

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