WASHINGTON — When President Bush, responding to a question about affirmative action, said during Wednesday's debate that he had met with the Congressional Black Caucus, it wasn't exactly the kind of meeting you would expect.
The caucus members got to see Bush only after showing up at the White House gate and refusing to leave until the president agreed to meet with them, according to the group's leader.
The session came about after the White House declined the group's repeated requests for meetings, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the 39-member caucus, said after the debate Wednesday.
Last February, he said, the group wanted to meet with Bush to discuss the crisis in Haiti and called White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. to tell him, "We're coming to the White House." About 20 members of the caucus then boarded a bus at the Capitol and traveled up Pennsylvania Avenue.
"We were not necessarily welcomed guests," Cummings said, suggesting that hard feelings may have lingered after a number of black lawmakers challenged Bush's election when the Electoral College votes were being certified in January 2001.
Caucus members were greeted by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice. But they were told flatly, "The president is not on the premises," recalled Candice Tolliver, the group's communications director.
Caucus members then said they wouldn't leave until they could meet with Bush. Fifteen minutes later, the president showed up.
After the meeting, the White House issued a statement saying Bush "welcomed the opportunity" to visit with the caucus.
"This president has basically not given the Congressional Black Caucus any respect. None," Cummings said after Wednesday's debate.
The caucus did meet with Bush 11 days after he was inaugurated -- at which time the president told them, "I hope you come back, and I'll certainly be inviting," according to the White House transcript.