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Finally, the NAACP

July 21, 2006

ON THURSDAY, PRESIDENT BUSH gave the sort of pedestrian speech to the NAACP that, but for a few obvious applause lines and anecdotes, could easily have been delivered to the Rotary Club or the AARP. The president deserves credit for resisting the urge to pander. But his speech also raises a question: If that's all he wanted to say, did he have to wait five years?

Bush's address to the NAACP convention was a model of cautious conciliation. He had notoriously snubbed the NAACP throughout his first term, the first president since Warren G. Harding not to speak to the group. The NAACP's leadership wasn't exactly playing nice with the Republican Party, either; former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond memorably referred to the "the Taliban wing" of the GOP in 2001 (he spoke before 9/11). Still, given candidate Bush's rebuke in 2000 of Republicans who avoided the NAACP, it seemed petty for him to do just that as president.

In his remarks, Bush invited the audience to embrace his domestic agenda, urging them to find common ground with him on privatizing Social Security, creating charter schools and education vouchers, subsidizing faith-based community organizations and even ending the estate tax.

The president also mentioned a few areas in which he and the NAACP are genuinely in sync, such as giving Africa more help to battle HIV/AIDS. And he drew a standing ovation when he called on Congress to renew the expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which has been one of the NAACP's top priorities. (Congress obliged a few hours later when the Senate passed a 25-year extension.) Meanwhile, he scrupulously avoided any mention of the war in Iraq, for which his leadership has drawn sharp and sustained criticism from NAACP leaders.

In sum, the president did what he seldom does: He went into a room full of likely opponents and tried to sell key parts of his legislative program, positioning his proposals as routes to a common goal. It was a stretch on some issues -- by one liberal group's estimate, only 59 African Americans are likely to pay estate taxes in 2006.

And though Bush's call for an "ownership" society may resonate among middle- and upper-class African Americans, it's found little support from the NAACP, which has been more focused on closing the black-white income gap.

Maybe part of the reason Bush was so reluctant to speak before the NAACP was that he feared unfavorable comparisons to his predecessor, whose lip-biting, eye-welling empathy regularly drew shouts of "Amen!" Or maybe -- after all, anyone twice elected president knows a thing or two about national politics -- Bush realizes that, with his party besieged from within and without, he needs to seek out support wherever he can find it. Or at least temper the opposition whenever he has the opportunity.

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