- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

President Bush will speak to the NAACP’s annual convention tomorrow, marking the first time in his presidency he will address the organization after declining its invitations the last five years.

“There’s a moment of opportunity here. I think the president wants to make the argument that he has had a career that reflects a strong commitment to civil rights,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said.

During his presidency, he has snubbed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in favor of addressing other black organizations, such as the National Urban League. As a candidate in 2000, Mr. Bush did speak to the NAACP, but the group responded with a harshly critical TV ad in the weeks before the election.

The relationship soured to the point in 2004 where the NAACP’s former president, Kweisi Mfume, said black supporters of Mr. Bush were “ventriloquists’ dummies” and organization Chairman Julian Bond urged Mr. Bush’s defeat in that year’s elections.

Mr. Bush’s spokesman at that time, Scott McClellan, said the NAACP was “not interested in a constructive dialogue,” and Mr. Bush himself said his relationship with the organization was “basically nonexistent.”

Mr. Snow yesterday couldn’t say what conditions have changed since 2004, but said Mr. Bush feels now is the right time to talk about “residues of the past” that must be addressed.

“We have to find ways to make sure that the road to opportunity is clear for one and all. And I think the president wants to make his voice heard,” Mr. Snow said.

Ronald Christie, a former Bush administration official who has written a book about his experience called “Black in the White House,” said the speech will present a chance to both sides.

“The president is putting himself in a position where he can be heard and where people can get the chance to weigh in and let the president know what they’re thinking,” he said.

Mr. Christie said Mr. Bush has accomplishments to talk about, including high levels of homeownership among minorities, the No Child Left Behind education bill, and improved access to health care in urban and rural areas.

He said he expects the NAACP to give Mr. Bush a polite welcome, and said from his own experience speaking to black and Hispanic audiences during his time in the administration that he was always warmly received and people were open to hearing him make his case.

Delegates to the convention, which began Saturday at the Washington Convention Center, said Mr. Bush made the right choice.

“It’s more about respect. If an organization comes to D.C., you should at least come and speak with them,” said Frances L. Gilchreast, president of the Flint, Mich., chapter. “If he went to Coretta Scott King’s funeral in Atlanta, but then couldn’t come a few blocks to see us, that is unacceptable.”

John K. Johnson, a member from the Fairfax County branch, said he respects Mr. Bush for the decision.

“We were elated that he came and broke with Republican tradition to speak to us as a candidate, and we can’t wait for him to be with us again,” he said.

But the Democratic National Committee called the appearance “too little too late,” and said Mr. Bush will have to explain the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

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