Bush Addresses NAACP for First Time

President Bush spoke at the annual NAACP convention Thursday, the first time the president has addressed the civil rights group since he took office in 2001. He touted GOP efforts to renew the Voting Rights Act — legislation some in his party opposed.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

It's DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams. Today, president Bush told the nation's largest civil rights organization he would be proud to sign a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act. Mr. Bush was appearing at the NAACP convention for the first time as president, having declined invitations for the past five years. NPR's David Greene joins us from the White House. And David, I gather the president got right to this issue of where he's been.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

He sure did. NAACP president Bruce Gordon gave a very brief introduction, basically introducing the president as the man who will sign the renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and then turned the podium over to the president. Mr. Bush came up, thanked him, and then cut right to the point that he's refused to come for five years. Let's have a listen here.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Bruce is a polite guy. I thought what he was going to say - it's about time you showed up.

(Soundbite of applause and laughter)

ADAMS: Yeah, get to it right away. Trying there to establish some rapport with the audience. Do you think that worked?

GREENE: It seemed to at times. He was trying to establish a rapport throughout his half hour on stage. He talked about centuries of slavery and discrimination that was allowed under the law. His speechwriters gave him some eloquent language. He talked about African-Americans being some of the nations founders who helped build a nation out of the wilderness and later led a people out of the wilderness of bigotry. So he got some good audience response for that sort of thing.

ADAMS: And the president clearly had his agenda to talk about.

GREENE: He did. He noted how his administration has increased funding for a lot of the NAACP's priorities. He wanted to talk about social issues on which he wanted to make the claim that the NAACP should be supportive of what his administration is doing - increased housing ownership for minorities, for example. At one point, Noah, he was talking about his faith-based initiative to free up federal funding for churches and religious charities. It's being challenged in court, of course. It has been for a while. Mr. Bush said these groups can actually help win civil rights for people, and as he put it, save America one heart and one soul at a time. And it was a moment where this really sounded like the president was going for an applause line on this policy, one that he has used in past elections to try and get some support from African-Americans. The audience, though, was absolutely silent at that point.

ADAMS: Hm. Well, what about this gap between the Republican Party and most -many African-Americans?

GREENE: Well, the president has had a lot of trouble getting votes from the African-American community. Less than 10 percent his first run at office, a little more after that. And he brought this up. He brought up the difference between his party and African-Americans, and this really brought out some of the biggest response from the audience. Let's have a listen here.

President BUSH: And I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party.

(Soundbite of applause)

ADAMS: Well, there's the issue. What did he say? How did he go on to respond?

GREENE: Well he talked about the party as the party of Lincoln, and he said it's a shame that his party for a long time had written off African-American's, and that African-American's had written off the GOP. He said that's not good for the country, and it's time to work together. And from there, he finally moved to really the business at hand in Washington today, which is the Voting Rights Act extension that's clearing the Senate today - it's likely to, and that he'll be signing very soon. And that also brought some pretty big response. I think we can hear it here.

President BUSH: I thank the members of the House of Representatives for re-authorizing the Voting Rights Act. Soon the Senate will take up the legislation. I look forward to the Senate passing this bill promptly, without amendment.

(Soundbite of applause)

President BUSH: So I can sign it into law.

ADAMS: David, this is a fence-mending speech for the NAACP. Do you think the president was well received over all?

GREENE: He was. There sounded like there was maybe one heckler toward the end of the speech, but the president didn't seem phased. I don't think the White House is going for a lot of votes for Republicans this fall. They wanted to start, you know, deliver a message of unity and start easing those tensions, which I think he did. Not the same reaction the president gets from many of his other speeches, though, I have to say.

ADAMS: NPR's David Greene at the White House. Thank you, David.

GREENE: Thank you, Noah.

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