WASHINGTON — Republican John McCain told the NAACP on Wednesday that while he hopes to be the next president, he recognizes that his rival, Democrat Barack Obama, "has achieved a great thing" in his rise as a black man and that Obama's success has made McCain proud of the country.
In a humble address to the civil rights organization's 99th annual convention in Cincinnati, McCain spoke at length about wanting to improve education for children in black communities but said he favored paying for more children in bad public schools to go to private or charter schools.
He characterized Democrats' and teachers unions' traditional opposition to such vouchers, which Obama also opposes, as being self-interested rather than in the best interests of students. That drew criticism from liberal groups including People for the American Way, whose president, Kathryn Kolbert, said despite the venue for McCain's remarks he was "trying to score points with his right-wing base."
McCain also defended his proposals for tax cuts and promoted the concept of portable health insurance, for which individuals, rather than employers, are responsible.
Throughout his remarks, the Arizona senator seemed to acknowledge his standing as underdog in this particular audience and the fact that the November election will mark a historic opportunity for blacks in a way that previous elections have not.
McCain recalled that it was an "outrage" to many Americans when President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, invited black educator Booker T. Washington to dine with him at the White House in 1901, and said America is "a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time."
He spoke of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 40 years ago, and said "struggle is rewarded in God's own time."
McCain also apologized for missing last year's convention, explaining that at the time, his campaign was struggling.
"I am a candidate for president who seeks your vote and hopes to earn it," McCain said. "But whether or not I win your support, I need your good will and counsel. And should I succeed, I'll need it all the more."
The audience received him warmly but didn't match its embrace of Obama when he spoke Monday night. Some of McCain's best applause lines were those in praise of Obama.
The Illinois senator campaigned in Indiana on Wednesday, delivering a speech on national security threats. He's spent the week talking about national security and foreign policy as he prepares to embark on a trip to the Middle East and Western Europe.
His campaign released a statement about McCain's speech to the NAACP, saying that McCain should be applauded for discussing education but that Obama "believes that the way to fix our schools isn't by draining their limited resources" by diverting funding to other schools. Obama supporters also said that McCain's congressional record included several votes against more money for public schools.
Some of the passages in McCain's speech echoed Obama's remarks to the NAACP, even as the rivals' solutions differed.
"Equal access to public education has been gained" by blacks, McCain said. "But what is the value of access to a failing school? Equal employment opportunity is set firmly down in the law. But with jobs becoming scarcer and 400,000 Americans thrown out of work just this year, that can amount to an equal share of diminished opportunity."
On education, McCain said that if he were elected his agenda would include "school choice for all who want it," an expansion of the Opportunity Scholarships program and "alternative certification," which would allow qualified individuals to teach without all of a school system's standard requirements in theory or methodology.
He also proposed spending $500 million on "virtual" schools and $250 million on virtual charter schools, to bring advanced-placement courses and high-level math and science instruction to students now without them.