Flanked by enabler Condoleezza Rice and consigliere Karl Rove, George W. Bush finally met with the black roots that he's always dismissed and disrespected at the behest of his Southern-Republican base for five years of his presidency. Ostensibly `invited' to attend the NAACP annual convention in D.C. by the elderly former president Benjamin Hooks during his tour of Elvis Presley's Graceland with the Japanese prime minister, Bush was given mostly silence or spotty applause at his obviously well-coached yet pithy remarks, which touched on black history and experience, but seemed demonstrably short on heart and conviction.
Sure, there were examples of unanimous response when he arrived at the stage, when he mentioned that the Republican Party--and by extension the administration--had previously ignored blacks, and another when he promised to sign the renewal of the Voting Rights Act from 1965, when the Senate had approved it "without amendment."
But one visit does not make in-roads into a big Dem base. Michael Steele, Lynn Swann and Ken Blackwell aren't viewed as heroes in the black community. Condoleezza Rice makes the older folks painfully shake their heads at this `poor child who wasn't raised right,' or suggest even darker reasons why she's Secretary of State instead of the increasingly--at least for him--vocal but exiled Colin Powell.
I can say it in three words: Katrina, Katrina, KATRINA.
Because Katrina was the watershed. If you were black, middle-class to poor, and of a certain generation or sentiment, you had no doubts whatsoever after late August 2005 about who Bush and the GOP were when they allowed thousands of people to face death by water in New Orleans and continued homelessness in its aftermath.
The president directly confronted one of the issues that has raised deep concern among African-American leaders, the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina, which left many of the black residents of New Orleans homeless.
"I understand that racism still lingers in America,'' Bush said. "It's a lot easier to change a law than to change a human heart.
Attendees like this woman suspected it was just politics as usual, and not some dramatic sea-change in either Bush or Rove.
He came when he ran for office[in 2000],'' said Shirley Jordan of Philadelphia, who serves as state secretary for the NAACP in Pennsylvania, "and he's coming today because of the midterm elections.''
He's also probably attending because Kwesi Mfume is running for political office back in Maryland, and that Bruce Gordon is considered by the Bushites as a more conciliatory, (read, appropriately deferential if not supine) kind of guy.
Bush's return also coincides with the seating of a new NAACP president, [Bruce] Gordon, voicing a more conciliatory tone than his predecessor, Kwesi Mfume-- who found himself at sharp odds with the Bush administration in 2004 when the Internal Revenue Service started inquiring about the NAACP's tax-exempt status.
"Shortly after (Gordon) was elected, he came to the Oval Office,'' Bush said. "He doesn't mince words. It's clear what's on his mind. He's also a results-oriented person. I'm pleased to say that I'm an admirer of Bruce Gordon. ... I don't know if that helps you or hurts you, but it's the truth.
"I don't expect Bruce to become a Republican, and neither do you,'' Bush said. "But I do want to work with him. And that's what I'm here to talk to you about.''
Problem is, according to Dan Froomkin, Gordon met with Bush, along with several other black leaders secretly during the Katrina disaster, but nothing of value seems to have come out of those three visits to the White House, except that Gordon is now more of an insider with Bush than the frustrated old line activists. And nothing that Bush said at those vaunted meetings has ever seen the light of day.
I wouldn't doubt Ray Nagin was there, too.
Meanwhile, the administration's Katrina record remains an open wound with the nation's African American community, from the initial disarray and ineptitude that left thousands of low-income black New Orleanians marooned in squalor for days, to its current, big-ticket restoration effort that is nevertheless seen by many as not serving the interests of the city's black community.
Moreover, it doesn't appear to some blacks that this IRS inquiry was all that much of a co-inky-dink, no matter if Mfume's hands aren't that clean. While "Cold Cash" Jefferson with $90K in his freezer was frankly disgraceful, blacks feel attacked when those they feel are bona fide leaders are being publicly humiliated or rousted by minions of the Federal government, a deep suspicion stemming not just from the King years but from attacks on Paul Robeson and the Fifties' blacklist. No doubt, it sometimes blinds many to excuse corruption and wrong-doing, and to insist that pot is merely calling kettle black. Blacks see a pattern which is hard sometimes for whites to understand.
The drumbeat of criticism against Bush, however, didn't dissipate up to the moment he stepped onto the podium.
Jesse Jackson, meeting with reporters before the president's appearance, said it was not enough for Bush to appear.
"He no doubt will say he is signing the Voting Rights Act, which is the crown jewel,'' Jackson said. "But the (reenactment of the) Voting Rights Act was not initiated from the White House. This has not been leadership top-down. This has been rebellion bottom-up."
On July 12, in his opening address, NAACP chair Julian Bond loosened his tie and let go an old-fashioned, hour-long stemwinder on Bush's domestic and foreign policies, including:
"The United States has a ways to go before a black or brown voter has nothing to worry about when he or she goes to the polls," she said.
Bond added, "We might call it voting while black."
The Reverend Carl Fitchett seemed to say it best about the issues Bush refuses to address:
"The Republicans are very good at coming up with phony issues,'' Fitchett said from his seat near the front rows today. "Stem-cell research is a phony issue. Flag-burning is a phony issue. Reading the Bible in school is a phony issue. The real issues are health care, ending the war... The real issue is also a free America.''
But are Dems really willing to fight for a free America alongside its black constituents?