NAACP's Gordon Builds White House Relationship

President Bush credited an amicable relationship with first-year NAACP President Bruce Gordon in deciding to address the group. Farai Chideya talks to Gordon about President Bush's speech, and the NAACP's new relationship with the White House.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Now, here to help preview what the NAACP'S new relationship with the White House might be is Bruce Gordon, president of the NAACP. Welcome.

Mr. BRUCE GORDON, (President, NAACP): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So let me ask you specifically what you had to do to get the president to the table, because he was very effusive in his praise for you and saying that you were the one specifically who brought him to the table.

Mr. GORDON: This has been a one-year journey, if you will. I stepped into this position with the intention of building a relationship with the White House simply because I think that no matter who is in the White House, what their policies are, there should be relationship between the White House and the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the country.

So that is the approach that I took. It's been a candid, direct approach. It's been one that was designed to acknowledge where we have differences but to make sure that we have clear conversation about that, but also to search for opportunities where our respective points of view intersect so that we can be collaborative. It's been an honest relationship. It's been a respectful relationship on both sides. And we've had enough time over the past year to test our ability to relate, to cooperate, and I guess from both sides of the relationship, we think we've passed the test.

CHIDEYA: Having only been able to view the speech on television, I was struck by silence for certain portions of the president's speech on, for example, faith-based initiatives, on the estate tax and resounding applause for others, like the Voting Rights Act. Do you think that the president made his point that he is trying to reach out to the African-American vote, or did the audience not respond entirely?

Mr. GORDON: I think that the audience did exactly what I would expect the audience to do. They voted. They expressed their point of view. The president was there. He I think was direct; he was consistent in terms of promoting those policies, those principles that he and his administration stand for. And the audience gave him their response. So when he said Voting Rights Act, no amendments, they cheered. They support that. When he said home ownership and business ownership, they supported that. When he said charter schools, they didn't support that. They didn't respond to, as you point out, faith-based initiatives.

So in effect, I think that the audience was attentive. I thought that they were respectful. I thought that they paid close attention to every word that the president said. And when he said something that sounded right and consistent with our point of view, they gave him feedback. When he said something that was inconsistent and not in line with our point of view, they gave him feedback to that too. I thought it was an honest exchange and that's exactly what it should have been.

CHIDEYA: How do you respond to Senator Barack Obama of Illinois who said don't be bamboozled, don't buy into it. It's great if he commits to signing it - it being the Voting Rights Act - but what is critical is the follow through. You don't just talk the talk, but you also walk the walk. How do you respond to that?

Mr. GORDON: Well, let's respond to that specifically in terms of the Voting Rights Act, because Senator Obama is absolutely right. It's not just a matter of having a law. It's a matter of enforcing the law. So first, there's no question that we want that Voting Rights Act to be reauthorized and restored. It's now come through the Senate, 98 to 0. So the president will sign it. He's committed to that. And we'll have that extension for another 25 years. That's perfect. But having said that, keep in mind that we have a Voting Rights Act in place today, yet in states like Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana, there are voting rights abuses. The George Voter ID law is a bad law. The Department of Justice pre-cleared it twice. They shouldn't have. It's only the court system that threw those laws out.

You couldn't vote in the Louisiana - the New Orleans mayoral election if you were evacuated to cities like Houston and Atlanta. That's the plan that was submitted by the State of Louisiana. The Department of Justice should not have approved the plan. They did.

So Senator Obama's point is that it's one thing to have a law, and we certainly need them, it is another thing to enforce the law, and we have not seen an even, consistent enforcement of a law as its written and as its intended. And he could not be further from the truth. And we're going to follow up on that.

We had hearings on Capitol Hill, we the NAACP, three weeks ago to speak to the issue of Department of Justice enforcement. So there's always work to do. We'll celebrate the passage of this law, we'll celebrate the president signing it, but we have to be ever vigilant.

CHIDEYA: In addition to the hearings, are you going to try to dialogue with the president personally, as you have in the past? And to what extent do you think that he takes your counsel now? He clearly takes you seriously because you were the one who brought him to the table to speak to the convention. But to what degree do you think that he takes your counsel on matters like the Voting Rights Act enforcement?

Mr. GORDON: I have had, during the course of this first year, fairly frequent interaction with the administration. It's just not a matter of if you talk to the president. He's got powerful people around him. I've had access to those folks. They've been open and receptive in terms of exchanging ideas. I'm not satisfied that I'm influencing policy as much as I want. I still see decisions being made by the administration that are not consistent with what I would have them do.

But if you start with the point is there access, is there discussion, are there attempts to influence policy and are there opportunities to make those attempts. The answers to all of those questions is yes. I simply to improve our batting average. I'm not satisfied that the interactions have produced the outcomes that I seek. And all that I can do along that line is continue to work the issue.

CHIDEYA: Finally and briefly, if you could just have one thing accomplished by the time you end your tenure, what would it be?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: My list is too long to say there's one thing. I'm particularly focused on jobs at the moment. I mean, if I look at an area where there is a basis for creating great solutions, it would be to close the unemployment disparity between African-Americans and the majority community, get more people to work earning a decent wage, getting the benefits of healthcare that many times employers provide, being placed in a position to live in communities with better public schools systems and so forth.

So if I could do one thing, if I had a silver bullet, it would be to wipe out the disparity of unemployment, put Black Americans in particular to work. Put Black men, in particular, to work and change the economic landscape of their lives.

CHIDEYA: NAACP President Bruce Gordon, thank you very much for your time.

Mr. GORDON: My pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Coming up, the president's speech to the NAACP. One black lawmaker says it's going to take more than words to woo black voters. And Chicago police tortured suspects in their custody, so why won't they be punished? We'll discuss these and other topics on our Roundtable, next.

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