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NAACP Gathers Amid Possible Thaw With President

Both sides have made recent overtures, but it's not clear whether Bush will break his streak and meet with the nation's oldest civil rights group.

July 16, 2006|Jonathan Peterson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Like a patient suitor, the NAACP has been waiting a year for an answer from the president of the United States.

Will George W. Bush finally meet with the nation's oldest civil rights organization?

On Saturday, the start of the group's 97th annual convention, the leaders of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People were still waiting.

"We're ever hopeful, ever optimistic, ever looking forward," said NAACP Chairman Julian Bond.

Bond wanted to make sure his words sounded friendly to Bush, who is the only president since Warren G. Harding in the early 1920s to refrain from visiting the organization: "If he comes, we're going to give him a good old NAACP welcome."

Administration officials have signaled that, after Bush returns from a summit of world leaders in Russia, he might address delegates at this year's convention. Either way, relations between the NAACP and the Bush administration appear to be entering a guardedly friendlier phase after years of distance between the Republican president and the civil rights group with a heavily Democratic following.

Bush offered a conciliatory gesture late last month, when he toured the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, posing for photos with his arm around Benjamin L. Hooks, former executive director of the NAACP.

The civil rights group has sent overtures of its own. NAACP President Bruce S. Gordon, a former Verizon Communications executive, has made no secret of his wish to improve ties with the White House since he took the helm of the civil rights group last summer. He has attended meetings with Bush and White House senior aide Karl Rove on the government's response to Hurricane Katrina and other matters.

Yet even as the NAACP and White House consider a potentially dramatic convention appearance by the president, difficult issues stand between them.

Many civil rights advocates remain appalled at the government's response to the devastation brought by Hurricane Katrina to poor Gulf communities. Indeed, Katrina rebuilding and economic needs of the poor are among the major concerns of the NAACP convention. Habitat for Humanity workers will build a home inside the Washington Convention Center to symbolize the plight of have-nots, and the NAACP plans to transport it to Houston for use by hurricane victims.

NAACP officials are miffed over an Internal Revenue Service audit that threatens to strip the group of its tax-exempt status. The IRS announced the audit shortly after a 2004 speech by Bond in which the chairman slammed Bush administration policies on education, the economy and the war in Iraq.

In a recent interview, NAACP tax attorney Marcus Owens said the government's timing was highly unusual, coming months before the end of the year. Invariably, such audits take place after the tax year is over, he said.

"That's completely unprecedented," said Owens, who was an IRS lawyer for 25 years. "That essentially never happens."

The NAACP has been dueling with the IRS over the dispute, and plans to challenge the matter in federal court.

"The fact of the matter is that investigation was bogus," Gordon said Saturday. "The accusation was bogus. It was politically motivated. We know that.... The case is not closed, although it should be."

Beyond all that, the civil rights organization has repeatedly found itself on the opposite side of key issues with the Bush administration and Republican-controlled Congress.

The NAACP opposed the nominations of John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court. It assailed budget cutbacks aimed at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and more broadly is committed to a vision of government that includes social programs that are anathema to many in the Republican Party.

Democrats dominate the lineup of politicians scheduled to address this year's convention; they include such party luminaries as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Harry Reid of Nevada and Barack Obama of Illinois, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.

Still, the NAACP and Bush may have some important common ground, such as on the issue of voting rights, which is a pre-eminent theme of this year's convention and a core belief of the organization. Bush has expressed support for renewing the Voting Rights Act, which last week passed the House despite efforts by some Southern conservatives to water it down.

"There could not be a more natural connection between the White House and the NAACP and the broader African American community" than over support of voting rights, Gordon said.

On Saturday, he urged Bush to attend the convention, noting the president's presence would be especially fitting at a time when Congress had yet to resolve the voting rights measure.

"We are hoping that the president of the United States will see fit to attend this convention," Gordon told reporters. But he added: "We don't know that he will."

Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in St. Petersburg, Russia, contributed to this report.

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