Roundtable: Bush NAACP Speech

Farai Chideya is joined at the roundtable by Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post, Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and Nat Irvin, professor of Future Studies at Wake Forest University. They discuss reaction to President Bush's speech at the NAACP convention.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Now onto our regular Roundtable. Joining us by phone from New York is Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. At member station WDET in Detroit, Michigan, Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post. And Nat Irvin, professor of Future Studies at Wake Forest University, is at member station WFDD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Thank you all for joining us. And, Nat, I'm going to start with you.

Let's bounce off of what Melissa said, that it's not really about reaching out to black voters - the president's speech to the NAACP - it's about attracting moderate whites. What do you think about that concept?

Professor NAT IRVIN (Professor of Future Studies, Wake Forest University): Well, I thought that was, it was not an idea that I had thought of prior to Dr. Lacewell's point. I thought the president's reason for going to the NAACP meeting was because he wanted to have Lynn Swann and Ken Blackwell and Michael Steele to have a more favorable reception among black voters in their respective legislative races.

I think the point of trying to moderate the views of the Republican Party with regard to white moderates or whites who don't want to be considered to be a part of a racist party rings true. But tactically, I don't think it makes much difference in a November 2006 race. Strategically, long term, I think she's right about that.

But the president really hasn't demonstrated very much along those lines. I'm not talking about anything in particular, anything particular point - any particular legislative issue, but in general he has missed the legacy that he claimed yesterday when he spoke, even of his father, the family - the Bush family.

If he had come earlier and spoken the same words that he spoke just yesterday, he would've been viewed not only by black Americans, all Americans, white Americans included, as a person who was going to put some - whose rhetoric would be matched by - his rhetoric and intentions would be matched somewhat at least by his policies.

CHIDEYA: Michael, we just saw this week that the president vetoed the stem-cell research bill, which was widely seen as a move to really shore up some grumbling on the Christian right coalition side of his party. Can the president, as party leader, really balance the need to reach out to African-Americans and the need to go to the far right in the Republican Party, or are those two things just mutually exclusive?

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Executive Director, New York Civil Rights Coalition): They're mutually exclusive, and that point should have been the introduction from Bruce Gordon or Julian Bond. The problem with their introduction is they did not take the president off his message.

They should've begun with a challenge to the president that we want you to un-veto your veto on embryonic stem-cell research because of diabetes, because of Alzheimer's, because of Parkinson's, because of all of the disease that we could possibly have cures for. You're not preaching to the choir, Mr. President, you're preaching to the moral right that is not moral.

And this specter of begging on Bruce Gordon's part is just outrageous. It's just insulting. It's a publicity stunt for the NAACP. He seems to be ingratiating himself just to get the president to the NAACP. And I know why, because the NAACP gets publicity once a year. And it's a publicity stunt for Bush, this cheap, hollow, empty rhetoric about the stain of slavery and those who came in chains.

And then the nerve of this guy, the president, to talk about the right to vote against a backdrop of Florida and Ohio and not talk about reforming voting procedures or voting machines. You know, you got to get a right to have a voting receipt. How about that? The NAACP missed the boat; it was a lost opportunity.

They should've said to the president, we want you to stop the GOP from putting people in position of high office and power who don't believe in civil rights, including on the United States Supreme Court, including on the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

How about declaring war on racial rhetoric of your party, Mr. President.

CHIDEYA: Let me get Joe in here. Joe, Michael clearly not a fan of the NAACP's move to bring the president into the NAACP tent. What do you think of it strategically, from the standpoint of the NAACP needing publicity, as all organizations do, and having to balance that with its own political agenda?

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Editor, The Washington Post): Well, I think clearly when the president visits any organization that particular organization gets publicity. It also got a lot of publicity by the fact that the president had not visited the NAACP and was about to become the only sitting president since Warren G. Harding not to have until he was there yesterday.

Strategically, I think it kind of puts the - as Bruce Gordon was saying - it essentially puts them in the game, but he still has a very low batting average. And I think that batting average will likely continue to be very low in terms of getting the president to adopt policies favorable to the NAACP and its members.

I think, in terms of the president and his political aims, I don't really think it's going to help him much, of he Republican Party. It will allow the three major black candidates in the Republican Party now, at the state level in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland to at least say the president is reaching out.

Mr. MEYERS: But it does not…

Mr. DAVIDSON: But in terms of actually that getting votes for them, I don't think that's, I don't think its really going to amount to any votes at all, frankly.

Mr. MEYERS: It doesn't put you in the game to beg for a meeting with the president. You're in the game if the president is calling you, asking for a meeting. This is the difference. And this used it be an effective, powerful organization, and an intelligent, informed organization. It no longer is. It's become the laughing stock of America. And George Bush, I'm sure, and his cronies are laughing, thinking they had a publicity stunt, which they did.

The NAACP allowed them to have PR gimmickry in the absence of substance.

CHIDEYA: But Michael, the audience…

Mr. DAVIDSON: I don't think it's the laughing stock of America. I just don't think the NAACP is that. I mean, I think its, its tactics…

Mr. MEYERS: Not under Bruce Gordon.

Mr. DAVIDSON: …it's tactics in terms of inviting the president to speak to them is the kind of thing that many organizations always do. The point is whether or not the president was effective in winning over any black votes. And I think on that point he's the one who probably struck out.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's, let's go back to an historical example. There's a famous photograph of Reverend King sitting down with Lyndon Johnson, trying to negotiate around the issue of civil rights. Now, I'm not saying that there's going to be any substantive progress that necessarily emerges from this, but there's a long history of people respectfully sitting down and challenging people who were in power.

Nat, do you think that there could be any gains? When we just spoke with Bruce Gordon, he said, you know, its going to be a process of challenging and negotiating within, talking not just to the president, but to other people in the administration. Is that going to produce any gains, do you think?

Prof. IRVIN: No, no, no. No. You see, the parallels are not quite the same with President Johnson. President Johnson was in a much stronger position during the time when Dr. King met with him. This is a president who is lame, lame duck. He doesn't even have any moral high ground across a number of issues across America, so he has not led by example.

Mr. MEYERS: Right.

Prof. IRVIN: He's a weak president. So there's nothing that really could be gained. As I said, tactically, there'll be some advantage to having him having spoken at the NAACP meeting for the black Republicans. But this has been largely a wasted effort. The presidential - this whole presidency is under question. It's not been successful.

So in terms of what could actually legislatively come out of, you know, Bruce spoke about jobs, the president, this president's going to tout his record on trying to increase the number of jobs, but it's not really very good. The economy looks like its strong in some areas, but in terms of a particular part of the black community it hasn't been effective.

And there's nothing that this administration is really going to be able to do or will seek to do, I think, between, in the last two years. Not from the presidential leadership, and you know…

CHIDEYA: Well, there's a question - go ahead.

Prof. IRVIN: One thing that's notable is that the president did not mention Iraq. You know, this is one area…

Mr. DAVIDSON: Um-hmm. There you go.

Prof. IRVIN: …he only talked basically about domestic policies, except for increasing…

Mr. MEYERS: Talking to people.

Prof. IRVIN: …assistance to the Africa as it relates to HIV-AIDS.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Right.

Prof. IRVIN: But Iraq is one area where the gap between black and white and politically and political positions is probably the greatest. The opposition in the black community to the war in Iraq has been overwhelming from the beginning, and it is one area he stayed strictly away from.

Mr. MEYERS: But that, but that is my point, when - that's what I meant by cheap, hollow rhetoric.

CHIDEYA: Well, Michael, let me frame, I mean, I think we probably only have time for one last big question, which is, then what? Then what for the NAACP, if bringing the president to speak is not a panacea or necessarily, you argue, even a positive thing…

Mr. MEYERS: Right.

CHIDEYA: …then what should the NAACP be doing?

Mr. MEYERS: Well, let me disclose - I used to be a citizen national director for the NAACP, so I don't want anybody complaining that I did not disclose that. And under Roy Wilkins and Ben Hooks.

The NAACP has to regain its ground as a - not only a moral force, but a powerful lobbying force and a grass roots organization. And it has to not just put up the rhetoric and say we're going to mobilize people to vote, it has to mobilize people to vote. It has to have a non-partisan militant advocacy to immigration, to stopping red-lining and disinvestment, and against racial steering. And it has to meet its Republican and Democratic politicians and have them walk the line, as opposed to talk rhetoric with respect to their appointments and how they act in office.

They have to give a report card to the nation and to the politicians every month about what they're doing in specific areas in terms of civil rights. We do not have a civil rights agenda any longer. We have Bruce Gordon, who came from corporate America, from retirement, and now Bush prefers the corporate type, he prefers to hobnob with those who look like the most moderate person possible. This…

CHIDEYA: I'm going to have to - I'm going to have to just transition to Joe and Nat. Just briefly, Joe, what next for the NAACP?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think what Bruce Gordon indicated was they have to make sure the president follows through on such things as enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. And he also indicated that it, certainly as it relates to Georgia and as it relates to voting rights to people in New Orleans, that the NAACP has been certainly disappointed so far in the Justice Department's enforcement of that law.

So the next step is, how vigorously will the NAACP and the rest of black America, and all of America for that matter, monitor the government's enforcement of voting rights act among other statutes?

CHIDEYA: Nat?

Prof. IRVIN: Well, I just would say, I give Mr. Gordon credit for trying to bring the president in. The NAACP has a lot of work to do internally. This organization itself has lost a lot of ground over the last five to seven years in terms of membership, its effectiveness, its own internal management. Mr. Gordon, I think, has come in with the right attitude. There's a lot that the organization needs to do to reach out to both Republicans and Democrats.

The NAACP should not be seen as a monolithic group when it comes to the political parties. They should try to embrace the ideas that represent the community, as Michael I think passionately described. I mean getting back to that kind of perspective I think will be healthy for the organization and for the country at large.

CHIDEYA: All right. We've been speaking with Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University, at WFDD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Also, at WDET in Detroit, Joe Davidson, Washington Post; and in New York, Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.

Thank you all so much.

And as always, if you'd like to comment on any of the topics you've heard on this roundtable, you can call us 202-408-3330. That's 202-408-3330. Or go to npr.org and click on Contact Us.

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