Condi Rice hasn’t left for the Middle East yet, perhaps because the president wanted to send her into combat here at home. Today the secretary of state joined George Bush for his first presidential visit to the NAACP. Rice received no special announcement when she arrived, and she didn’t have to say a word, but when she preceded Bush into the vast ballroom, she got a standing ovation. “I knew he was bringing her,” said one woman as she applauded. “That’s his confidence blanket.”
Bush was braced for a tough reception from the audience of a thousand or so at the Washington Convention Center. In 2004, the president described his relationship with the nearly 100-year-old civil rights organization as “non-existent.” Openly hostile would have been a more accurate characterization. During the 2000 presidential race, the organization ran a television ad against Bush featuring the daughter of James Byrd, a black man dragged to death by three white men in a pickup, blaming Bush for refusing her pleas for a hate-crime law when he was governor. Julian Bond, the NAACP chairman who sat behind Bush on the stage, once accused him of appeasing the “wretched appetites of the extreme right wing” and picking “Cabinet officials whose devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection.” Before he stepped to the podium, Bush took the kind of consuming deep breath David Blaine does before an underwater stunt.
White men generally behave in one of two ways when they are anxious to connect with African Americans: They’re excessively solicitous or self-consciously chummy. The first produces an unending smile. The second produces expressions like: How is it hanging, my African brother? When Bush shook Bond’s hand with the sweeping theatricality of friends meeting to play a pickup game of basketball, I thought we were in for an uncomfortable morning, but Bush put away the awkwardness. Instead he was relaxed, and immediately addressed the tension in the room. Speaking about NAACP President Bruce S. Gordon’s introduction, Bush said: “I thought he was going to say, ‘It’s about time you showed up.’ “
Bush kept at it, describing the country’s history for the audience in a way that would drive conservative talk-radio hosts to their prescription medications if a Democrat did it. Slavery placed a “stain on America’s founding, a stain that we have not yet wiped clean,” said Bush, before going on to compare African slaves to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. “Too often [people] ignore another group of founders—men and women and children who did not come to America of their free will, but in chains. These founders literally helped build our country.” The tone was reminiscent of his visit three years ago to Goree Island, where African slaves were shipped to America. Bush also called the civil rights movement a second founding. (The Bush team reached out to several African-Americans for advice before the speech, including Al Gore’s former campaign manager, Donna Brazile, and it showed.)
Bush was at pains to show that while he may have disagreements with the NAACP, he wanted to engage it openly. Throughout the speech he paid careful tribute to audience members Jesse Jackson, former NAACP head Dr. Benjamin Hooks, and Bond. He was most solicitous of Gordon, who has met with Bush several times since Hurricane Katrina and is credited with repairing the relationship. “He doesn’t mince words,” said Bush before repeatedly expressing his respect for Gordon. “I don’t know if that helps you or hurts you, but it’s the truth. I admire the man.”
Bush was not going to win over many NAACP delegates to the Republican Party, a point emphasized when the audience erupted in approval to his admission: “I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party.” The best Bush could hope for was to ease the animosity African-Americans feel for the GOP. After Hurricane Katrina, whatever small progress he and the Republican Party had made with black voters was erased. According to AP-Ipsos polling conducted in June and July, 86 percent of blacks disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job as president, compared with 56 percent of whites who disapprove. Angry voters turn out. If Bush lowered the boil, that can help Republicans.
The cavernous venue seemed the perfect place for cooling down anger. Windowless and draped from floor to ceiling in black curtains, it was a sanctuary in the city’s oppressive summer heat. The audience responded politely. The fundamental theme of the day was respect. Bush came to show it, and for his effort on that score he was given it. Several people rushed the stage at the start to get pictures. Others kept their video cameras trained on the large flat-screen monitors for much of the speech to capture the event. “He had a good person writing his speech and he didn’t mess it up,” laughed Gloria Sweet-Love from Brownsville, Tenn., who described herself as a “diehard Democrat.” (And yes, that’s her name, she wore a name tag.) “When you respect who we respect, we respect you.”
Just because the president crossed the respect threshold didn’t mean that he was going to take any political risk by participating in a question-and-answer session with the audience. There were boos when Bush talked about school choice and a chuckle that turned into a groan when he said, “I come from a family committed to civil rights.” After the speech, Bush met briefly with Jackson and promised future meetings with his staff. Later, when the civil rights leader was asked if the Bush family was “committed to civil rights,” he paused, smiled, and said coyly, “They understand it.” At the 2000 Democratic Convention, Jackson gave a famous speech devoted to the family’s shortcomings, but even he seemed anxious to show respect for the day.
The administration’s budgets are still going to disappoint NAACP members, and if the president’s behavior after the immediate crisis of Katrina is any indication, his attention to poverty issues is going to be slim and episodic. But the president was able to make one promise that the audience knew would last. The White House had pushed the Senate to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, which it did Thursday, and Bush promised that he would sign it within days. That brought audience members to their feet. The crescendo moment was almost threatened by two hecklers railing against the president’s false promises and Dick Cheney’s penchant for war. The two men were quickly escorted away and the Secret Service shoved back reporters who tried to follow them. Everyone seemed determined to keep on message.