WASHINGTON—President Bush made a personal appearance before the NAACP on Thursday for the first time of his presidency, a gesture toward ending years of bad blood between himself and the nation's foremost civil rights organization.
Bush acknowledged to a packed convention hall that racism persists in America, and he admitted that his party and his White House are out of step with many African-American voters.
"I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party," Bush said. "I consider it a tragedy that the party of Lincoln let go of its historic ties with the African-American community. For too long, my party wrote off the African-American vote, and many African-Americans wrote off the Republican Party."
Bush's remarks signaled a thaw in the relationship between the president and the NAACP leadership, which in previous years leveled criticism at White House policies that Bush took as so blistering and personal that he refused for five years to attend the group's annual convention. Bush was on course to become the first president since Herbert Hoover not to attend a NAACP convention while in office.
But with a new NAACP president, former Verizon executive Bruce Gordon, and a renewed GOP election-year effort to woo African-American voters, and with the convention site just blocks from the White House rather than more-distant cities, Bush found it hard to turn down the group's invitation this year.
"Bruce is a polite guy—I thought he was going to say, `It's about time you showed up,'" Bush said to laughter and applause in the packed ballroom at Washington's convention center. "I see this as a moment of opportunity. I have come to celebrate the heroism of the civil rights movement and the accomplishments of the NAACP."
Bush received mild applause during an address that featured some old themes from his 2000 and 2004 election campaigns and a pledge to sign a bill renewing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which the Senate passed 98-0 later in the day.
He received a smattering of boos when he touted his education program, which provides for the creation of charter schools and advocates giving vouchers to help children at failing public schools pay for private school.
"Charter schools are a sore spot with us," said Bob Lydia, president of the NAACP's Dallas branch. He said the plan siphons much needed money away from public education systems. "We don't think we should go down that road. President Bush and (former Education Secretary) Rod Paige didn't do the job we thought they would on education."
Bush received only 9 percent of the African-American vote in 2000 but increased his share to 11 percent in 2004. Only 15 percent of African-Americans approve of the job Bush is doing, according to a Gallup Poll taken earlier this month.
His massive unpopularity is due to a legacy of African-American outrage at perceived racial discrimination in Florida's 2000 presidential balloting, the federal government's failed response in New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina, and White House support of legal challenges to some affirmative-action programs in higher education.
Bush, for his part, signaled a desire to go beyond the acrimony of the past.
"What I want to do is work with the NAACP to help fix the foundations of our society," Bush said.
The president's appearance was greeted with hopefulness and skepticism from the conventioneers and civil rights leaders who attended.
Lydia of Dallas called Bush's talk a long overdue step forward.
"It's a move to do the right thing," said Shirley Johnson, first vice president of the NAACP's Miami-Dade branch. "I am hopeful that the words the president spoke ... that he will live up to his words."
Mary Degree, vice president of the civil rights group's Cleveland County, N.C., branch, said she wasn't impressed.
"We have a president who is on his way out of office coming to us and can't do anything for us," she said. "All the things he's proposing today, what can he do about it?"
Othetta Glover, a retired teacher from Long Beach, Calif., said she had low expectations of Bush before the speech and the same view afterward.
"I don't think he was speaking from the inside, but from the pages he was reading," she said. "It was what I expected him to say."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson noted that while Bush expressed support for renewing the Voting Rights Act, it was groups like the NAACP that pushed for it. "This has not been leadership top-down," Jackson said. "This has been rebellion bottom-up."
Jackson said he asked for a meeting with Bush after the president's speech. He said the president told him to talk to Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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