Roundtable: Bush's Week of Firsts

At the roundtable, Farai Chideya is joined by Eric Deggans, media critic for The St. Petersburg Times, Julianne Malveaux, an economist and author, and Walter Fields, CEO of the North Star Network. They discuss two firsts for President George W. Bush: his address to the NAACP and his veto of the stem-cell bill.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable, President George W. Bush speaks at the NAACP Convention for the first time. And insurance agents in New Orleans advise against flood coverage.

Joining us today from our headquarters in Washington, D.C., economist and author Julianne Malveaux, president and CEO of Last Word Productions, Inc. In our New York bureau, Walter Fields, CEO and publisher of the northstarnetwork.com. And Eric Deggans, a media critic with the St. Petersburg Times, joins us from the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

So thank you all from joining us.

Ms. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (President and CEO, Last Word Productions, Inc.): Same to you, Farai.

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (Media Critic, St. Petersburg Times): Thank you.

Mr. WALTER FIELDS (CEO, North Star Network): Sure.

CHIDEYA: So let's start out with this landmark, the president turning down the NAACP five times in a row. Came to speak in 2000, when he was running for president. Since then has not been seen or heard.

Dr. Malveaux, I'll start with you. Why do you think now is time?

Ms. MALVEAUX: What are his poll ratings right now? You know, quite frankly - I know that I sound like someone who wants to have it both ways. On one hand, I'm somewhat happy he's coming because he's turned the NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, down repeatedly, which is just disgusting.

The flip side is, I mean, he comes back from Europe having used profanity. He's massaging the German chancellor. Give me a break. His poll ratings are the in the toilet and we have three races nationally, Farai, where his presence can make a difference.

You've got Ken Blackwell in Ohio. You have Swann, Lynn Swann, in Pennsylvania. And you've got Michael Steele here in Maryland. And in all those cases, they bear the weight of the Republican Party appearing to be racist. Now they've got the card that the president went to the NAACP.

The only difference he makes, Farai, is if that man, when he goes, picks up the challenge that Hillary Clinton laid out yesterday. She said if he comes, let him come and sign the Voting Rights Act. The Senate has passed it now, he can sign it and he can make a difference; otherwise, it's window dressing.

And from what I'm hearing from delegates, they share my mixed feelings. Some are, you know, it's about time, but at the same time, why now? And especially why when his ratings are in the toilet in a pivotal election year?

CHIDEYA: Eric, is this - you know, you're a media critic - is this a media play? Because one thing that strikes me, having been to the conventions of NABJ and UNITY - black journalists and journalists of color - the president didn't get a particularly warm reception there. So he's taking a risk that he will show up today and not be well received. So how is this going to play out in a media sense?

Mr. DEGGANS: A media play? Perish the thought. That never happens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEGGANS: No. This is - well, this is all about midterm election politics. And I don't know what people mean when they say get a chilly reception. From what I remember from the president's appearance at UNITY, people were surprised that he was treated so well.

You know, there's a lot of discontent about Bush amongst black folks for a lot of reasons. But I think when he makes an appearance at one of these conventions, you know, people respect the office. And frankly, I don't know why he dodged the NAACP for as long as he did because I don't think he has much to fear. And he's shown in other public settings that he can handle when people are a little resistant to his message.

He's surprisingly charming even when people are insulting him. So it always seemed a little bit of a political suicide that he avoided the NAACP for as long as he did. And now it makes sense that he would reach out. We've got these crucial races and the midterm elections are looming.

CHIDEYA: Walter, Bruce Gordon, who heads the NAACP, has been credited with being able to bring President Bush to the table. Do you think the NAACP will now ask something of the president, ask for something specific?

Mr. FIELDS: Well, I don't know if there's a specific ask. I think there are a number of policy issues that certainly the organization should being the president's attention.

But understand this, this is a real sign of desperation on the part of this president when he has to turn to the black community to find some love. He'll actually probably get a warmer reception before the NAACP than he will in front of some conservative Republicans at this point of his administration.

But there is a significant thing that could come out of this appearance by the president. You have to remember that the NAACP was under the specter of an IRS audit suggesting that they had violated their 501c3 tax-exempt status by criticizing the president. His appearance at this convention should squash all of that.

And that was a very dangerous scenario for the NAACP because it could have had major ramifications on membership as well as fundraising and legitimacy in this country. So for no other reason except that, I am glad the president is speaking before this group. Because the NAACP still has a relevant place in this country and we need to find ways to make sure that our agenda is heard in both parties in Washington, D.C.

CHIDEYA: Julianne, do you think that the president is coming to listen or just talk? I mean, if you talk about what the NAACP's agenda is, does he ever really have much of a sense of what the agenda is?

Ms. MALVEAUX: He doesn't have a clue. I think he's coming to talk. I think it's utterly symbolic. You know, I don't think it's a bad thing because he's the first in I mean probably the early 20th century that's declined the organization's invitations time after time after time. But I don't think that he's going to stay around.

That's an issue. I think that it would be very, very useful if he would do a couple of things. One, he laid out a poverty agenda last year in September after Hurricane Katrina. He's ignored that agenda. So one of the things that I'm going to listen to him, pad in hand, and hope that he revives that agenda, thinking that he probably won't. But I think that's one of the things because the NAACP took such a strong position around supporting Katrina, putting up a new Web site and raising millions of dollars themselves to help victims that they would want to hear.

I think the other thing that people will want to hear - and again, Hillary and Barack Obama and Senator Kennedy were here yesterday talking about the Voting Rights Act. That he could really hit a homerun - I doubt that he will but he could - if he stood, as Hillary said, right on this stage and sign the act that has now come out of the Senate that people have been waiting for, that thousands of NAACP-ers yesterday, Farai, marched to the Capitol to ask the Senate to please basically get it out and they responded before the close, the summer recess.

So he could do those things but I don't think he is coming to listen. I think he, as always, so horribly scripted that you, you know, every time the man opens his mouth, I hope a wind will gust up and take the notes away to see what ends up happening.

But he's scripted a little bit too much to sit down and hear, but maybe his handlers have told him he can make some points here by doing some critical things that have heretofore been missing in his work.

Mr. FIELDS: But, Farai, very few presidents come to this convention and listen. I mean, this has always been an appearance factor. I think the more important thing is whether or not they open lines of communications with the West Wing going forward, because that's where the real work has to get done. This is going to be a photo op, it's going to be the president's opportunity to come before and try to make nice in some ways.

I think if he signs the Voting Rights Act it would be significant, it would be symbolic. But clearly what has to happen beyond this day is this notion of the NAACP having access to the White House to bring some of these concerns right into the Oval Office.

CHIDEYA: Eric, let me turn to you on a different issue on the presidency. The president yesterday vetoed, for the first time ever, a bill. That was a bill that had to do with expanding the opportunities for stem cell research. People on the right, including Nancy Reagan and Bill Frist, have supported an expanded stem cell research agenda.

And they're really looking into things like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, paralysis as things that stem cell research could help. Now thinking about the president positioning himself regarding the NAACP and then also vetoing stem cell, it seems like he's speaking to African-Americans, who are traditionally viewed as left, and then also speaking to the Christian right. Is that kind of two-front strategy going to work?

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, you know, what was interesting about the stem cell - excuse me - veto yesterday. If you watched the press conference, he had all of these children that had been created as a result of using this technology for fertility treatments to sort of soften the blow of sort of saying to people who have Parkinson's and these other diseases, you're not going to get the research you want.

And I've always viewed that stem cell debate as a little disingenuous because these embryonic stem cells are created for fertility treatments and they get discarded. So if it's okay to throw them in the trash, I don't understand why it's not okay to do some research that might actually help people.

Of course, the president is trying to have it both ways. Of course, he's going to the NAACP and basically trying to make nice for the midterms. And the NAACP does need that access. And they also need the IRS to back off; they need to show that they're less partisan than they've been accused of being in the past. And of course the president needs to reaffirm his bonafides with the conservatives.

We just saw, Ralph Reed lose what was supposed to be a cakewalk primary for him in Georgia for the Lt. Governor's slot; a disturbing sign that conservatives are going to have a tough time in this midterm. So President Bush has got to keep a close eye on the conservatives and get them back in the fold.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, Walter, do you think that for the midterms or for the next presidential election that the Republicans are losing ground?

Mr. FIELDS: Well, I think they've lost a lot of ground with the black electorate. But I think when you look at the NAACP - and I speak from experience having served as the political director of the New Jersey NAACP for a number of years and serving on that board - you know, it's not a monolithic organization. There are quite a few NAACP delegates who are Republicans and there are quite a few that probably agree with the president's position on stem cell research.

The larger issue with the Republican Party is unfortunately the Dixiecrats, or the Democrats of the 1960s, are now Dixiecans in the Republican Party. And the Republican Party has a southern problem. And until they solve that problem, they're never going to be able to make major inroads into the black electorate.

The real interesting dynamic, though, is that if you look at those southern states, the reverse migration that has taken place, blacks moving back into the south, could pose some real opportunities for the Democrats to begin turning over the South again, or for the Republicans to find a way to deal with some of its inherent racism in some of those southern states, in some of those southern representatives, and find a real way to have a real conversation with black people.

CHIDEYA: Well, Julianne, in the context of race and racism and politics, Ken Mehlman, who is the Republican Party chief, apologized to the NAACP. He said once I'm here as a Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong, wrong about racializing politics. Is that kind of statement meaningful, and will that change overall campaign strategies?

Ms. MALVEAUX: It's only meaningful, Farai, if they do something about it. I mean, Mehlman made his visit last year in a year that the president still declined to go to the NAACP Convention. So you send sort of the Plan B guy. And I think any apology from that prospective is just a gloved apology, a strategic apology; it's not something that's real.

Republicans have done their work in attempting to recruit African-Americans to run under their party banner in some cases. Lynn Swann certainly was invited to run by Republicans who cleared the way for him in the primaries. Michael Steele, the lieutenant governor of Maryland, also invited - basically directly solicited by Dick Cheney to run. And Kenneth Blackwell didn't need to be invited. He would invite himself in any case. But he's gotten strong support from his party. But of course this support is payback. This is the man who skewed the Ohio elections by deciding that absentee ballots that weren't on a certain paper weight shouldn't be counted.

In other cases where African-Americans who are different kinds of Republicans, not so far right, many Republicans are indeed centrist, there are many African-Americans who want to improve their party. They don't get the kind of support if they're not so-called pro-life as opposed to pro-choice, if they don't stand with the party.

I mean, what has happened with this party is that they've shut down on people who don't agree with them 100 percent. So I could give you a list of, you know, half a dozen races at least where I've talked to Republicans around the country who are moderate black Republicans who aren't getting the support that let's say a Michael Steele is getting. You know, Cheney will never be at their cocktail party.

I wanted to take up just one issue that was raised about Ralph Reed. I don't think that we should necessarily look at Ralph Reed's defeat as a defeat of conservatism. I think we also have to bear in mind that Ralph Reed is closely associated with Jack Abramoff and that that chicanery is something that neither Democrats nor Republicans can afford to embrace. And at least part of the Reed defeat has to be looked at in terms of his connection to people who've been systematically stealing.

Mr. DEGGANS: Oh, definitely. And we also have to note, though, that a lot of prominent Republicans are connected to Abramoff.

And I also wanted to note - when you talked about the apology for racializing politics, that was wiped out by two words: Hurricane Katrina. Black folks saw all of that footage...

Ms. MALVEAUX: Oh, yeah.

Mr. DEGGANS: ...of the poor black people stranded in New Orleans. And any kind of apology for racializing politics went out the window. So the Republican Party has got a lot of work to do to make up for those images.

CHIDEYA: Well, speaking of which...

Ms. MALVEAUX: And they haven't made up for that one yet.

CHIDEYA: ...let me just get to one last topic. We don't have very much time. Speaking of Katrina, there's now an ongoing legal battle over whether people who did not have flood insurance actually should be compensated. And a big-time lawyer who helped win the tobacco settlement that was, you know, in millions and millions of dollars is now pursuing several cases. We don't have much time, but do you think that ultimately insurers are going to have to pay for people's flood damage if they didn't steer them towards flood insurance or if they more specifically steered them away from it? Eric, what about you?

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, this - yeah, I was in New Orleans about five months after Katrina hit, and there was a tremendous amount of frustration over this. This is something that happens in the wake of every hurricane. The insurers come in and they say, well, you didn't have flood insurance and proceed to remove about 80 percent of the damage in a home off the table.

This is something they're going to have to deal with, particularly because in one news story that I saw, one of the - the insurer reimbursed one person who claimed that he had been misled by an agent. So they've admitted that at least in one case this has happened. And everyone is watching this precedent because, as anyone who's has had to deal with this knows, the adjustors come in and they attribute a lot of damage to flood even if the winds might have done it.

CHIDEYA: Okay, Walter, and Julianne, very quickly.

Mr. FIELDS: Well, we've heard this story before. We heard it after Hurricane Andrew. Insurance companies historically never want to pay out. So I don't think it's nothing necessarily new, but I think there will be some level of compensation to victims because I think that the language in these policies are very ambiguous, and I think that they'll find some relief.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Attorney Scruggs is the right attorney for this. He has literally tilted against the wind in many occasions and I think that the insurance company's job is to maximize their profit given what the rules are about reimbursing people. They don't want to reimburse people, and if they don't, they're going to end up paying even more because they'll also have to pay legal fees.

CHIDEYA: In Washington, economist and author Julianne Malveaux, president and CEO of Last Word Productions, Inc. Walter Fields, CEO and publisher of the northstarnetwork.com in New York. And in St. Petersburg, Florida, Eric Deggans, media critic with the St. Petersburg Times.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. DEGGANS: Thank you.

Mr. FIELDS: Thank you.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Thank you, Farai.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS AND NOTES, NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams recaps the latest news from Washington in our weekly installment of Political Corner. And we'll give you a plain language guide to real estate terms.

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