- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

PITTSBURGH — President Bush told black leaders yesterday that his administration is working hard to foster “greater opportunity and hope” for minorities and pledged “we will not tire until we have extended the great promise of America to every neighborhood in America.”

“We believe in opportunity for all, a society where every person can dream, and work, and realize his or her potential,” he told about 1,000 attendees at the annual National Urban League meeting.

“We’re dedicated to bringing economic hope to every neighborhood, a good education to every child, and comfort and compassion to the afflicted,” he said, drawing applause.

Mr. Bush, who garnered 9 percent of the black vote in 2000, is working to increase the Republican Party’s take in 2004. Addressing the influential group just hours before seven Democratic presidential candidates held a forum there, the president pitched his plans “to make the promise of America real for everyone.”

Mr. Bush, who earlier this month visited a former slave house on an African island, said blacks are an integral part of America’s past, present and future.

“The stolen sons and daughters of Africa helped to awake the conscience of America. The very people traded into slavery helped to set America free. The moral vision of African-Americans and of groups like the Urban League caused Americans to examine our hearts, to correct our Constitution, and to teach our children the dignity and equality of every person of every race,” he said to more applause.

Shortly after the president finished shaking hands with hundreds of blacks, the Democratic presidential hopefuls harangued Mr. Bush at their forum in the evening, with one saying that the president respected only wealth and another accusing him of playing racial politics.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean criticized the president for opposing affirmative action in the University of Michigan cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The president played the race card and he had the nerve to come before the National Urban League to ask for your help and your support,” Mr. Dean said. He drew a standing ovation when he promised to talk about race before white as well as black audiences.

About half the crowd stuck around to give a warmer reception to the Democratic candidates and their attacks on Mr. Bush.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said that “this morning you got a lot of Bush, but not a lot of beef.” And Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said the president “doesn’t share our values.”

“He honors and respects only one thing — wealth. And he wants to make sure that those who have it, keep it,” Mr. Edwards said.

Of the nine declared Democratic candidates, Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Bob Graham of Florida failed to attend the forum. They had scheduling conflicts.

After his speech, Mr. Bush met for 15 minutes with the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus; and Clinton administration Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater.

Black leaders have fired another round of criticism at Mr. Bush for not attending any annual meetings of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People since taking office.

At the League meeting, the president drew mostly polite applause, although attendees clapped vigorously when he talked about the administration’s efforts in Africa.

Citing his push to provide $15 billion over five years to help Africa “overcome one of the deadliest enemies it has ever faced, the spread of HIV/AIDS,” Mr. Bush drew loud applause when he said his administration is “determined to turn the tide against AIDS in Africa.”

Attendees also applauded loudly when Mr. Bush said the United States is “committed to working with” West African nations to end violence in war-torn Liberia by creating “the conditions in which lives can be saved and aid can be delivered.”

Mr. Jackson, Mr. Cummings and Mr. Slater encouraged Mr. Bush to intervene in the civil war in Liberia.

Later, Mr. Jackson said he had told Mr. Bush that the United States has a legal obligation to help Liberia under a treaty Abraham Lincoln signed with that country.

Mr. Cummings said Mr. Bush had told them that he wanted to let troops from other African nations go in first to bring humanitarian aid and peace.

“I asked him, ‘Are you saying that you have actually ruled out our troops going on the ground?’” Mr. Cummings said. “And he says, ‘No, I have not ruled out that, but first I want to do these things, and I have a process that I’m going through.’”

Mr. Bush targeted his League speech more toward his domestic agenda and the issues American blacks most care about: education, the economy, poverty alleviation, equity in homeownership, faith-based programs and an expansion of minority-owned businesses.

“I think too many of our schools are leaving too many children unprepared. … We must challenge the soft bigotry of low expectations. And you know what I’m talking about,” he said to applause.

Calling equality in education “one of the most pressing civil rights of our day,” Mr. Bush said standardized testing, criticized by some black leaders, is imperative if the federal government is to discern which schools are failing children.

He said the federal government should offer greater tax incentives for people to build homes in inner cities and provide down-payment assistance.

He added that the administration is working to ensure that minority businesses get access to federal contracting, and financing and technical assistance for start-ups, and to encourage religious groups to help those most in need.

Urban League President Marc Morial said he saw areas of common ground in Mr. Bush’s remarks on homeownership and his recognition of a need to address unemployment.

“This was a start. … The proof will be in what happens when we work toward a follow-up,” he said.

Hours before Mr. Bush spoke, Mr. Cummings told League members in a speech that they should question the president about why he pushed for tax cuts in the face of social needs.

“Is it a statement of our national values to give massive tax cuts to those who need it the least while denying a child tax credit to 12 million children, 2.4 million who are African-American?” Mr. Cummings said. “Is it a statement of our national values to pass these tax cuts while shortchanging education to the tune of 9 billion dollars?”

Stephen Dinan contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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