NAACP Members Review Bush Address

President Bush got a mixed reception when he spoke to the NAACP's 97th annual convention Thursday in Washington, D.C. It was the Bush's first speech as president to the civil-rights group.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. I'm sitting in for Ed Gordon.

For five years in a row, President Bush declined invitations to address NAACP members at their annual convention, but the president was there yesterday at the 97th annual gathering. He credits the NAACP's new President Bruce Gordon for his change of heart.

We'll talk with Mr. Gordon in just a few minutes. But first, just a few hours after the president's speech, the Senate voted 98 to 0 to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act for another 25 years. That had some people asking, was the president simply courting black voters alienated over his handling of Katrina and other domestic issues.

From Washington, D.C., NPR's Allison Keyes reports on how the president and his speech were received.

Mr. BRUCE GORDON (President, NAACP): The President of the United States.

(Soundbite of applause)

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

The crowd had a standing ovation for the president on arrival, and he seemed eager to acknowledge that his relationship with the nation's oldest civil rights group has been strained. He tried a little levity after NAACP President Bruce Gordon introduced him.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you very much, Bruce. Thanks for your introduction. Bruce is a polite guy. I thought what he was going to say, it's about time you showed up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: But it was clear that the delegates in a room with hundreds of empty seats hadn't forgotten the rift with Mr. Bush. That was one of the reasons he had refused invitations for the past five years.

The rift was caused partly by an NAACP ad associating the president with the dragging death of an African-American man in Texas, and partly because the IRS started looking in the NAACP's tax exempt status after Chairman Julian Bond gave a speech criticizing the president's policies. There were murmurs in the crowd as Mr. Bush sought to showcase his support for civil rights.

President BUSH: I come from a family committed to civil rights.

REYES: But there was applause when he promised to help the Gulf Coast recover from Hurricane Katrina and when he chastised his own party for writing off the black vote. But the biggest response came when he promised to sign the Voting Rights Act once it reaches his desk.

President BUSH: I look forward to the Senate passing this bill promptly without amendment…

(Soundbite of applause)

President BUSH: …so I can sign it into law.

KEYES: But many in the audience sat with crossed arms and skeptical looks on their faces. The president's usual folksy rhythm was off and some of his statements didn't go over well. Jackson, Mississippi, Delegate Irene Jones(ph) called the speech bland and says President Bush should have remembered to whom he was speaking.

Ms. IRENE JONES (Jackson, Mississippi Delegate, NAACP): There seemed to be a lot of places where he expected applause, but he forgot this is a highly politically educated audience. And so we recognize what's not said and we recognize what this is being used for. He's in some trouble right now.

KEYES: And Mervin Sealy(ph), from Hickory, North Carolina, was unhappy to hear President Bush pushing vouchers, an issue that drew a few boos from the crowd.

Mr. MERVIN SEALY: Because I'm in no way for charter schools or vouchers. I am in no way for him to mess with Social Security. And when he talks about home ownership, we need jobs.

KEYES: Two protestors, one in glasses with dreadlocks, tried to interrupt the president's speech, shouting about teaching children to read, asking questions about Dick Cheney, and the situation in the Middle East.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) Dick Cheney (unintelligible)

President BUSH: …in the 20th Century…

KEYES: After the speech, civil rights veteran and Congressman John Lewis wondered why Mr. Bush didn't talked about foreign policy.

Congressman JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): I'm surprised he didn't say much about what is going on abroad, about the Middle East and the war. You know, we're not one people issue. We're just not concerned about civil rights. We're concerned about peace and violence and war.

KEYES: But many in the crowd were pleased with President Bush's appearance after all the work NAACP President Bruce Gordon went through to establish grounds for a dialogue. Now people here say they're waiting with interest to see what the partnership Mr. Bush promised on stage turns out to be.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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