Bush Addresses NAACP for First Time as President

President Bush speaks at the NAACP's 97th annual convention in Washington, D.C. It's his first visit to the gathering since becoming president. Democratic Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ted Kennedy and Barack Obama have already addressed the gathering of about 4,000 people.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning

At this hour, President Bush is speaking to the annual convention of the NAACP. Up until now, Mr. Bush had refused the group's invitations, which had made him the only president since Warren Harding to fail to address the NAACP.

The president's approval rating among African-Americans is now 16 percent, even lower than his overall approval rating of 36 percent. NPR's Senior Correspondent Juan Williams joins us to analyze the politics behind the president's decision to speak to the NAACP.

Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Why is the president addressing the group this year? I mean, is it the approval ratings?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that's part of it, Renee, although I don't think the president ever expects to get tremendous political support from the black community.

The White House sees this as an opportunity, though, on several levels. First, I think the president is concerned about his legacy. He may not have won many black votes, but he wants to position himself as a president who cared about race relations in the country while he served as president.

That message is for blacks, but it's also for whites, especially moderate white Republicans uneasy with recent tensions between the GOP and African-Americans over renewal of the Voting Rights Act. As you know, some southern Republicans were blocking it for a time in the House.

The message is also calculated, Renee, to help Republicans with political outreach to minorities in the upcoming midterm elections, reminding them that the White House has focused on strong religious values, including opposition to gay marriage, an issue that plays well among minorities. If the president can pump up minority support for Republican candidates just a little bit this fall that could be the difference between winning and losing.

MONTAGNE: And what is the president expected to say?

WILLIAMS: Well, according to White House officials I spoke with yesterday, he'll make the case that his administration has set a good example on diversity for America by having two black secretaries of state, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, as well as the former Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, and the current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Alphonso Jackson.

The president will talk about paying attention to failing public schools that serve minority students in big cities, his No Child Left Behind Program, and say that he cares about the achievement gap between black and white students in the country. He'll mention a rise in loans being made by the federal government to minority businesses through the Small Business Administration.

White House officials say the president will also speak about, again, another increase in funding, this time to fight AIDS in Africa. So the overall message to get past the rhetoric, the static in his relationship with the NAACP for example, and look at his record.

MONTAGNE: Well, the president could have touted much of this on any of the last several years. Talk to us about the problems he's had with the NAACP that's kept him away.

WILLIAMS: Well, there's been a lot of issues here, Renee. He did speak to the group, if you'll remember, while running for president in 2000. He had a pretty good relationship for a southern Republican with minority groups. But in the 2000 election, the NAACP ran ads that attacked the president for not signing hate crime legislation in Texas while he was governor. That bill would have increased the penalty for two white men who dragged James Byrd, a black man, to his death.

Tensions rose again following charges that the Republicans intimidated black voters in Florida in the 2000 election. And then Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP, lit another fire by telling an NAACP convention that the president was elected by a far right-wing base that he described as more radical than the Taliban. He even went further and said that the idea of equality for Republicans amounted to the Confederate flag flying next to the American flag.

So it got pretty hostile. And then, of course, recently the IRS opened a probe into the NAACP's tax exempt status because of the political stance that some said the group was taking. And of course you also had problems with helping victims of Hurricane Katrina, and that led to charges that the president didn't care about poor, black people.

So White House officials saw no need to put the president in front of a potentially hostile crowd at the NAACP until now.

MONTAGNE: So, again, what changed?

WILLIAMS: Well, the NAACP has a new president in Bruce Gordon. He's the first corporate executive to head the group and he's made a point of developing a less political relationship with the president. Also, Julian Bond, the chairman, has talked to the president at a recent Washington dinner and assured him of a respectful reception this morning. And with the Voting Rights Act renewal set to be passed by the Senate in the next few days and then signed by the president, the White House felt they had a celebratory moment, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thank you for the analysis.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams.

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