At first glance the Bush administration's relationship with black American voters can be described in pretty simple terms: It is bad.
In the 2000 presidential race candidate Bush got 8 percent of the black vote. That is worse than former Sen. Bob Dole did in 1996 against Bill Clinton, the man described by African American author Toni Morrison as "the first black president."
In an April 18 report on the current presidential campaign, the Zogby International poll found 84 percent of blacks plan to vote against President Bush again. Only 6 percent of the likely black voters surveyed said they intended to vote for the president.
Facing numbers like that the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign is not investing much time or money in climbing out of its deep hole with black voters. The campaign's minority outreach instead targets Hispanic voters. The Zogby poll finds that 49 percent of the likely Hispanic voters are already in the president's corner; only 43 percent say plan to vote for the Democrat's likely nominee, Sen. John Kerry.
In private conversations Bush administration officials emphasize that the president has never turned his back on black Americans. But it's also clear the president's team has some open wounds from its last brush with black voters.
For example, team Bush still feels lingering anger at the NAACP's brand of political advertising in the 2000 race. The ad suggested that as the governor of Texas, Bush failed to take a hard stand against a murderous 1998 attack by three whites on a black man, James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. Implicit in the dramatic ad was the suggestion was that Bush, who got a solid share of the minority vote in his 1998 gubernatorial race in Texas [30 percent of blacks and 47 percent of Hispanics] had turned into a presidential candidate willing to stand with white lynch mobs.
That ad distorted a complex situation. The truth is Gov. Bush took the conventional conservative position that hate crime legislation was a dangerous increase of authority for prosecutors. He believed the state had sufficient criminal penalties to adequately punish the attackers. The NAACP, however, ran its tough ad anyway. The result, according to one Bush official, was not only to stimulate black turnout against the GOP candidate in 2000 but to forever demonize Bush among most black voters.
The future president's image with black voters also took a hit when his primary campaign needed a win in South Carolina and candidate Bush made an appearance at Bob Jones University, a school that had been known for banning interracial dating. The problem was exacerbated a few months later by the famous dispute over the black vote in Florida. During the recount, charges flew that Republican officials targeted precincts with mostly black voters for intense scrutiny of voter registration lists. Stories circulated about black voters being pushed off voting registration lists, improperly instructed to fill in both sides of ballots and allegedly even intimidated by police loitering near polling places on Election Day. This all took place in a state governed by Jeb Bush, the candidate's brother.
Once he took office, however, President Bush surrounded himself with a record number of high ranking black officials. At the moment, the president has three black cabinet secretaries: Housing Secretary Alfonso Jackson; Education Secretary Rod Paige and Secretary of State Colin Powell. In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, another African American, the deputy attorney general, Larry Thompson [who has since left the administration], briefed the president on the key issue of homeland security.
Of course, the administration official most closely identified with the president is a black woman, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Their closeness has even generated resentment. Some conservatives openly suggested that Richard Clarke, the former anti-terrorism chief, was angry at losing the National Security Advisor job to Rice. Last week, the hot gossip in Washington was the story of Rice speaking with a group of reporters at a dinner party when she supposedly blurted out: "As I was telling my husb…" She then stopped and later picked up with: "As I was telling President Bush."
In terms of White House symbolism the president has made efforts to reach out to black voters. He has traveled to Africa and he has had one of the few state dinners during his term for the president of Kenya. He went to Dr. Martin Luther King's grave in Atlanta to lay a wreath on King's 75th birthday. And he has also placed a bust of King in the White House. The president also left Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott to walk the plank (and lose his job as majority leader) after Lott spoke glowingly of Strom Thurmond's segregationist campaign for president in 1948. Recently the president gave Dorothy Height, the leader of the National Council of Negro Women, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The president, however, has not made time for formal meetings with the Congressional Black Caucus. And he has sparred with civil rights leaders over the recess appointment of Mississippi Judge Charles Pickering Sr. to a federal appeals court.
All of this political sniping from both sides is small compared to the powerful fact of the president putting black people at the top of the administration's foreign policy apparatus. The amount of clout invested in those two black people by any president, Democrat or Republican, is unprecedented. And no one is arguing that they are racial tokens. A late April poll finds that Powell gets the highest approval for his job performance of any administration official. And guess who ranks second — none other than Dr. Rice.
A recent issue of The American Prospect magazine had Powell on the cover under the headline "The Shame of Colin Powell." And the "shame" was that he has not won several internal battles over administration policy — becoming instead a "moderate front man" for a militaristic, unilateral foreign policy. Rice has similarly been criticized for supposedly failing to negotiate the tangled lines of power among Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Powell. The argument is that she is over her head with a group of more experienced political players.
All of that backbiting will be almost immediately lost when historians look back on the Bush administration.
My bet is that history will recall the administration's relationship with blacks for bringing black people into the highest levels of public policy. There is no guarantee that Powell, Rice or any white person wins every fight among the power players around the president. But in order to win, in order to influence, you have to get in the ring. And until the current administration, the most elite circle of advisors to the most powerful man in the world, the foreign policy apparatus, might as well have had a "Whites Only" sign on the door.
Once he leaves the government, Powell is on his way to being the next Henry Kissinger, a former secretary of state widely regarded as a wise man on world affairs. Rice, once she leaves, will always be a candidate to be secretary of state in any Republican administration. And once President Bush leaves office, history may recall his relationship with black Americans for the fact that he opened doors.