President Bush yesterday told the NAACP that slavery and years of discrimination continue to “wound” and “stain” America but said he will work with black leaders on issues such as education, homeownership and AIDS, where they agree on the goals.
“I want to change the relationship,” the president said at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s annual convention at the Washington Convention Center, his first appearance after five years of declining invitations.
In 2004, Mr. Bush said he had a “basically nonexistent” relationship with the NAACP, whose leaders vigorously opposed his re-election that year. But Mr. Bush said yesterday that he sees an opportunity this year and heaped praise on the organization’s president, Bruce S. Gordon.
For the most part, the audience received Mr. Bush politely but coldly, with smatterings of applause when he touted gains in areas such as funding for historically black colleges. He drew a standing ovation when he urged passage, “without amendment,” of a bill renewing the expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Senate approved the extension 98-0 later in the day.
The president also drew approval when he said that racism still persists.
“Slavery was legal for nearly a hundred years, and discrimination legal in many places for nearly a hundred years more. Taken together, the record placed a stain on America’s founding, a stain that we have not yet wiped clean,” he said.
After being introduced by Mr. Gordon, Mr. Bush immediately addressed his years of snubs, joking, “I thought what he was going to say, ‘It’s about time you showed up.’ And I’m glad I did.”
He also acknowledged the Republican Party’s recent rocky history with black voters, calling it “a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historic ties with the African-American community.”
He said Republicans wrote off black voters and vice versa, preventing the two sides from working together.
Still, the White House said the speech was not an attempt to win votes for Republicans, and delegates to the convention this week said black voters’ ties to the Democratic Party remain strong and deep.
“We are trying to bridge this gap between Republicans and the NAACP — who knows what the future may bring — but right now, we just don’t want to break a good thing with people who will vote in favor of our issues,” said Yvonne White, NAACP Michigan state conference president.
Many members at the convention said they like Republican policies on ending the death tax and expanding business and homeownership opportunities, but they are sour on judicial nominations, the absence of a minimum-wage increase and opposition to affirmative action.
Mr. Bush’s speech was interrupted once by a heckler later identified as associated with maverick politician Lyndon LaRouche.
When Mr. Bush talked about school choice and school vouchers, some in the audience applauded, but others booed and shook their heads.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said later that although Mr. Bush’s education message may not have resonated with convention delegates, it struck home with black voters elsewhere.
“It was certainly resonating for people who live in [Washington D.C.], and it was certainly resonating with people who live in a lot of cities,” Mr. Snow said.
He said Mr. Bush “has been walking the walk” on issues important to black families, and yesterday’s speech was a chance for the president to make his case and “to try to lower the temperature when it comes to race relations so people really can get along and work together.”
Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said Mr. Bush made strides toward that goal yesterday.
“I think the president was remarkably effective in re-engaging and establishing a new relationship with the NAACP, and in effect through them with the black community,” he said. “His engagement of the issues of slavery and racism showed that he understands our issues and problems, so it was a good speech and I think he was received well.”
Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, said Mr. Bush hit many key issues, from reforming Social Security to helping convicts re-enter society.
“He clearly stayed on point and raised the issues well, and it was particularly the context in which the issues were raised that was very important and he was effective in doing that,” Mr. Shelton said.
But others such as the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton said they are waiting to see Mr. Bush follow through on his promises and in particular want to see him conduct more enforcement under the Voting Rights Act.
Mr. Sharpton also criticized Mr. Bush for not mentioning affirmative action in his 37-minute speech, saying that to acknowledge persistent racism but to ignore affirmative action “is to agree that one has a broken leg, but to refuse to give it a cast or wheelchair,” he said.
“Theatrically, he did better than I expected. But in substance, he did worse than I had hoped for,” Mr. Sharpton said.