- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2006

“It’s all about Iraq.” So said Dick Gregory, the famous comedian, civil rights activist and conspiracy theorist, when I asked why he thought President Bush decided to address the annual National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention for the first time in his presidency.

“He wants to send a message out of here to support the Voting Rights Act,” Mr. Gregory said at the Washington Convention Center after the speech. “How could he call for democracy in Iraq if black folks don’t have it here at home?”

Indeed, the president received his biggest applause from the NAACP delegates when he promised to swiftly reauthorize the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which the Senate voted later in the day to renew for another 25 years.

But Mr. Gregory’s Iraq theory was only one of the more unusual speculations I heard about Mr. Bush’s motives. Among the others:

“We’re glad he came, but he’s really trying to reach another audience: white moderate swing voters in the suburbs.”

“He likes [the new NAACP head] Bruce Gordon [a retired Verizon executive]. They speak the same corporate language.”

“He’s desperate. Midterm elections are coming. Have you seen his approval ratings?”

“This is his atonement for [the government’s sluggish response to victims of Hurricane] Katrina.”

“He’s trying to say that Kanye West [the rapper who famously said Bush ‘doesn’t like black people’] was wrong.”

Pick your favorite motive. The last time Mr. Bush addressed the NAACP, he was a candidate in 2000. A few months later, the organization was broadcasting an attack ad that implied Texas Gov. Bush supported the truck-dragging murder of a black man in that state by two white men. After that, Mr. Bush spoke to the National Urban League and some other black groups, but not to the NAACP until now.

In the meantime, he and the NAACP engaged in a five-year game of make-believe: The NAACP pretended Mr. Bush had no reason to feel all that insulted and the Bush administration pretended he had nothing to gain by talking to the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. Both, in my view, were wrong.

I have another possible reason for Mr. Bush decision to return: He hopes everyone will forget how quickly he lost interest in fighting poverty after delivering back-to-back speeches on the subject last September after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, he has mentioned poverty only six times in public, according to a survey by The Washington Post. No new antipoverty initiatives came up in his State of the Union address in January or his most recent budget.

Such glaring omissions help to explain why Mr. Bush has failed to build very much on the black turnout he received in 2004, which was surprisingly large only in comparison to other Republican candidates since the 1960s. Mr. Bush drew 11 percent of the black vote overall against Democrat John Kerry and as high as 14 percent in some states, aided by a grass-roots campaign that aroused black churchgoers over same-sex “marriage,” a hot-button issue that has nothing to do with race or poverty.

Republicans have work to do if they want to reach more black voters, and the president knows it. “I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historical ties with the African-American community,” Mr. Bush told the NAACP. “For too long, my party wrote off the African-American vote, and many African-Americans wrote off the Republican Party.”

With that, Mr. Bush called for “a new founding,” the completion of the civil rights movement’s dreams and of the ideals laid down by the nation’s Founders. He could begin by addressing a thorny topic he conspicuously has omitted from his speeches: the growing crisis of young undereducated black men.

The conditions of undereducated and disconnected young black males have worsened by every measure in recent university studies published by the Urban Institute, despite the last decade’s economic boom.

The welfare reform law President Clinton enacted 10 years ago helped reduce the number of women and children in poverty. But, the jobless rate for black male high school dropouts in their 20s soared to 72 percent by 2004, compared with only 34 percent for white dropouts and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts.

President Bush can’t solve that challenge by himself, but he could help. His favored recipe of public-private partnerships and faith-based initiatives, for example, could help usher a lot of young black men off of parole and onto payrolls.

And the NAACP could help, too. If they really want to do what their name advocates for “colored people,” there are thousands of unemployed and disconnected young men of color waiting to be advanced. Speeches are nice, but action is better.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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