Wednesday, January 26, 2005

President Bush plans to meet with black legislators today after meeting with black clergy yesterday, although liberal civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond were not invited.

Instead of granting an audience to black activists who have been strongly critical of the administration, Mr. Bush huddled yesterday with a group of black ministers and executives described by the White House as “committed to improving the lives of African-Americans.”

Today, the president will meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, which planned to present Mr. Bush with a legislative wish list.

“We will lay out a succinct agenda for the president which addresses the actual disparities that exist today in health care, education, economic opportunity, justice, retirement security and foreign policy,” said Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat and caucus chairman.

“When we disagree with the president, we will stand up and do so,” Mr. Watt added. “However, it is my hope that we will find common ground that will benefit all Americans.”

During his first term, Mr. Bush met only twice with the caucus and once with Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). But the latter was considered a personal meeting with Mr. Mfume because it took place after he announced his resignation from the civil rights group, according to NAACP spokesman John White.

“President Bush generally doesn’t meet with people who don’t agree with him,” Mr. White said yesterday. “The only time the president met with the NAACP was when he was running for office in 2000 and he spoke at our convention.

“He refused to speak at any other convention,” he added. “He was invited each year, but he declined.”

The NAACP’s chairman, Mr. Bond, repeatedly has excoriated the president in harshly personal terms. Just last week, Mr. Bond gave a speech in Philadelphia accusing Mr. Bush of having “lied” about the war in Iraq and generally appealing to the “dark underside of American society.”

“There is indeed a right-wing conspiracy,” Mr. Bond told his audience. “And it controls the White House, Congress, government and most of the media.”

Mr. Bond also has compared conservative Republicans to the Taliban regime that sheltered terrorist Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Such rhetoric was criticized by participants in yesterday’s meeting with Mr. Bush.

“When someone has declared you an enemy and has called you a racist and says that you are to the right of the Taliban or you’re from the Taliban wing, that is not a suitable environment that encourages dialogue,” said Robert L. Woodson Sr. of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

Last week, the president used his inaugural address to call for a mending of race relations.

“Our country must abandon all the habits of racism, because we cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of bigotry at the same time,” he said.

Although Mr. Bush garnered just 9 percent of the black vote in the 2000 election, the number rose to 11 percent in 2004. Republicans have acknowledged that they need to do a better job of reaching out to a voting bloc that traditionally has supported Democrats by overwhelming margins.

To that end, the president has been touting his plan for a partial privatization of Social Security as a boon to minorities because they will be able to establish personal savings accounts.

“That will enable them to be able to pass on those savings to their heirs if they happen to pass away early,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. “African-American males have had a shorter life span than other sectors of America.”

Michelle Bernard, senior vice president of the Independent Women’s Forum, agreed.

“If you put in $10,000 into the system and you’re not allowed to tap before a certain age and you die before that age, you don’t get that money out,” said Mrs. Bernard, who attended yesterday’s meeting with the president.

Mr. Bush emphasized that message during his meeting yesterday with the 14 clergy and eight executives of banks and nonprofit organizations.

The president prefers to meet with such leaders, most of whom support his “faith-based” initiative utilizing churches to perform social services, over civil rights leaders like Mr. Jackson.

Mr. Jackson, who was frequently invited to the White House during the presidency of Bill Clinton, has met with Mr. Bush only once since he became president. Mr. Jackson has been an outspoken critic of Mr. Bush and supported a lawsuit challenging the president’s electoral victory in Ohio last year.

Although the Congressional Black Caucus also has been critical of the president, its new chairman, Mr. Watt, hopes to establish a respectful working relationship.

“I believe that it is critically important that we work together with the president on behalf of the American people,” he said. “We look forward to this being a positive meeting and to having future meetings with President Bush.”

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