NEW YORK — Prolonging his feud with the NAACP--and once again raising the specter of ill-temper that has haunted his career--Bob Dole on Thursday accused the civil rights group's president of "trying to set me up" by inviting him to speak to the organization.
Dole declined the invitation earlier this week, with aides blaming a scheduling conflict.
But in a telephone interview with New York talk radio host Don Imus, Dole alluded to another factor--agreeing with the suggestion that he likely would have received a frosty reception at the annual meeting of the nation's largest black civil rights organization.
"That probably would have been the case," Dole said, noting that Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP's new president and a former Democratic congressman from Maryland, "is not known as a moderate Democrat or a nonpartisan Democrat. He's one of the leading liberal Democrats."
A few hours later, Dole went further. Returning to Washington's National Airport from New York, Dole stopped on the tarmac to talk with reporters. Asked about Mfume, Dole said: "The head of the NAACP is a very liberal Democrat and I think he was trying to set me up."
Scowling, Dole then abruptly turned and got into his car.
The exchange is the latest display of a tendency on Dole's part that has troubled Republican strategists--a seeming unwillingness to put a controversy to rest without having had the last word coupled with a tendency to turn political arguments into personal quarrels.
"He wants the last word," said a senior GOP operative. "He's having a lot of trouble sticking to what the message is supposed to be."
Earlier this month, for example, Dole insisted on repeating his belief that nicotine may not be addictive and then suggested that C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general in the Reagan administration, had criticized his stance because he had been brainwashed by the liberal media.
A few weeks before that, after falling into a fight with party conservatives over abortion, Dole publicly attacked Gary Bauer, a prominent conservative activist.
Meanwhile, the feud between Dole and his primary-season rival, Patrick J. Buchanan, continues to fester.
Dole invited to a lunch next Tuesday all seven of his rivals for the GOP nomination, along with their wives. But Buchanan, who technically remains a contender for the nomination, declined to attend the gathering, which is intended as a pre-convention show of Republican unity.
"I do not feel free to accept your invitation at this time," Buchanan said Thursday in a letter to Dole. "As you know, I made a commitment to the 3 million people who voted for me in the Republican primaries to stay in this race until the convention and to represent their interests in San Diego."
Buchanan and party officials representing Dole have been playing a game of nerves over Buchanan's potential role at next month's Republican convention. National GOP Chairman Haley Barbour has publicly said that Buchanan will not be allowed to speak at the convention unless he first endorses Dole. Buchanan has said he will not make an endorsement until the party agrees to certain conditions he has set.
The NAACP problem began on Tuesday, when Dole declined to appear at the group's convention in Charlotte, N.C. Instead, he left Washington that day at 1:20 p.m. for a campaign event in Richmond, Va., and then flew to Philadelphia, where he attended the annual baseball All-Star game that night.
The next day, Mfume criticized Dole for going to a sporting event on the day that he had been invited to speak at the NAACP convention, saying pointedly that President Clinton, who spoke to the group that day, was one "who recognizes the need to be president of all the people . . . one not afraid to talk about the vexing issue of race in this country."
Mfume then brought the delegates to their feet with chants of "four more years" as he added: "The president of the United States didn't go to an All-Star game."
On the Imus show, Dole insisted that "I wasn't aware of the invitation" to speak to the NAACP--although presidential candidates of both parties have frequently addressed the group's annual meeting. "We had scheduling conflicts. We can't do everything," he said.
He also insisted that he has a "flawless" civil rights record "starting way back in 1964" and had served as Senate floor manager of the bill that created a federal holiday on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
"I would hope the other members of the NAACP would at least look at it," Dole said of his record, adding: " . . . we'll have other opportunities to speak to an audience that I think I can relate to."
Dole vowed to meet with at least some NAACP officials despite the flap. " . . . we will figure out some way to meet with the [NAACP] board of directors or something," he said. "I think at least some are my friends. I don't know if Mfume is one of them."
In Charlotte, where the NAACP was concluding its convention, the Associated Press quoted Mfume as responding: