Bush Again Declines Invite to NAACP Convention

The annual convention of the NAACP held its final session in Milwaukee Thursday. President Bush declined an invitation to attend the event. Instead, the head of the Republican Party spoke and made news by issuing an apology of sorts for the Republican Party's treatment of African-American voters going back to the 1960s.

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President Bush once again has declined to address the nation's largest and most prominent African-American organization. The NAACP wrapped up its annual convention yesterday in Milwaukee. Mr. Bush is the first president in more than seven decades never to appear before the group while in office. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Five years in a row now, President Bush has had something else to do instead of attending the annual NAACP gathering. That streak has encouraged speculation about the president's apparent reluctance. Certainly it's no secret the group has been openly hostile to Mr. Bush's policies. Perhaps he even recalls the group loudly booing and jeering his father, then Vice President Bush, at the convention back in 1983. That doesn't mean the current President Bush doesn't speak to African-American organizations, but he tries to find a more welcoming setting such as yesterday when he attended the luncheon meeting of a lesser known group called the Indiana Black Expo made up of African-American entrepreneurs.

(Soundbite of applause)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Thanks for the warm welcome. Be seated! It is an honor to be here.

GONYEA: Speaking in downtown Indianapolis, the president said he's created opportunities for business that have been good for African-Americans.

Pres. BUSH: Because of sound policy and low taxes, by the way, and the hard work of our citizens, we're getting result. African-American business ownership is at an all-time high in America today.

GONYEA: He said minority homeownership is up. He spoke of his faith-based initiative, saying it helps black churches get the funding to provide needed social services and he said his education reforms are improving inner-city schools, but he did not say any of this to the NAACP which had been meeting for several days in Milwaukee just a few hundred miles away. In the past, the White House has cited political reasons for snubbing the NAACP. This year, Mr. Bush's spokesman simply said the Black Expo event had been scheduled first.

The top Republican official who did speak to the NAACP was national party Chairman Ken Mehlman. Mehlman is keenly aware that the president received just 11 percent of the black vote last year and he said in Milwaukee that African-Americans could be more open-minded.

Mr. KEN MEHLMAN (Chairman, Republican National Committee): All we're asking is for a fair hearing, the chance to make our case, the benefit of the doubt that we're sincere in wanting to restore our historic bonds.

GONYEA: Politically speaking, Mehlman knows that if a Republican can do just a few percentage points better among black voters, then some key swing states could tip toward the GOP. For instance, in Ohio last year, the president's improved showing among black voters may have been just enough to keep him from losing the state and with it the Electoral College. Six times in his speech, Mehlman referred to Republicans as the party of Abraham Lincoln. At times, his pitch of current White House policies was greeted with disapproving murmurs, even scattered boos, but there was applause when he seemed to apologize for the so-called Southern strategy that Republicans adopted in the mid-1960s to win votes of whites alienated by desegregation.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I come here as Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: But if that was meant as an apology and early media reports treated it as one, Mehlman himself tempered the remarks later in the day in an interview with NPR.

Mr. MEHLMAN: I think it's a mistake when people talk about a Southern strategy. The fact is that in the past, folks in the North, the South, the East and the West didn't do a good enough job of reaching out to African-Americans.

GONYEA: Mehlman then added...

Mr. MEHLMAN: If anything, the Democrat Party today is benefiting from racial polarization, and it's certainly not in my interest when Democrats get 90 percent of the African-American vote.

GONYEA: Back in Milwaukee after the speech, reaction was mixed. Mehlman won points for showing up but many felt his case should have been made by President Bush himself. NAACP delegate John Hines from Virginia had this to say about the president's continued absence.

Mr. JOHN HINES (NAACP Delegate): He's very stubborn, and once he makes up his mind, he's going to stay with what he thinks is right. I think right now he thinks it's right to not address us because he obviously felt some of the arrows that we threw at him in the past, but he's the president. He should be able to take that.

GONYEA: Delegate Emerson Slain is from Louisiana. He's a Bush supporter but...

Mr. EMERSON SLAIN (NAACP Delegate): The president should have been here. He should have been here for each of the past five years. Although these people which are my people don't agree with him a hundred percent, he needs to come here and he needs to face them for one reason and one reason only: He's president of all the people in the United States.

GONYEA: Already, NAACP officials say they want the president to attend next year's gathering to be held in Washington. Longtime civil rights activist Julian Bond, who was also a top official of the NAACP, spoke to the convention.

Mr. JULIAN BOND: We're just going to be blocks away from the White House and, Mr. President, we're extending the invitation a year in advance.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: A White House spokesman was noncommittal about next year, saying no official request had been received.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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