WASHINGTON — President Bush acknowledged persistent racism in America and lamented the Republican Party’s bumpy relations with black voters as he addressed the NAACP’s annual convention Thursday for the first time in his presidency.
“I understand that racism still lingers in America,” Bush told the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “It’s a lot easier to change a law than to change a human heart. And I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party.”
That line generated boisterous applause and cheers from the thousands in the audience, which generally gave the president a polite, reserved reception.
“I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historical ties with the African-American community,” Bush said. “For too long, my party wrote off the African-American vote, and many African-Americans wrote off the Republican Party.”
The president called slavery “a stain” yet to be cleaned. And he said that when people talk about the “founding fathers” of the United States, they too often forget those who came “in chains.”
Black support for Republicans in elections has hovered around 10 percent for more than a decade. In 2004, Bush drew 11 percent of the black vote against Democrat John Kerry.
Civil rights law cited
Most of the president’s remarks were greeted with smatterings of applause, but many in the convention center stood up to clap when he urged the Senate to renew a landmark civil rights law passed in the 1960s to stop racist voting practices in the South.
“President Johnson called the right to vote the lifeblood of our democracy. That was true then and it remains true today,” Bush said.
Bush, joined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and chief political adviser Karl Rove, spoke as the Senate debated a bill to approve a 25-year extension of expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The House has passed the bill, and the Senate was expected to pass it quickly, propelled by a Republican push to increase the party’s credibility with minorities.
For five years in a row, Bush has declined invitations to address the NAACP convention. This year, he said yes. He was introduced by NAACP head Bruce Gordon.
“Bruce was a polite guy,” Bush said. “I thought what he was going to say, ‘It’s about time you showed up.’ And I’m glad I did.”
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He knew it would be a tough audience. According to AP-Ipsos polling conducted in June and July, 86 percent of blacks disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job as president, compared with 56 percent of whites who disapprove.
Bush said he saw his attendance at the convention as a moment of opportunity to celebrate the civil rights movement and the accomplishments of the NAACP.
“I come from a family committed to civil rights,” Bush said. “My faith tells me that we are all children of God — equally loved, equally cherished, equally entitled to the rights He grants us all.
“For nearly 200 years, our nation failed the test of extending the blessings of liberty to African-Americans. Slavery was legal for nearly 100 years, and discrimination legal in many places for nearly 100 years more.”
The White House denied claims that Bush’s appearance was a way of atoning for the government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and some black elected officials alleged that indifference to black suffering and racial injustice was to blame for the sluggish reaction to the disaster.
Bush, noting that he has met several times with Gordon, and that they have discussed Katrina. “We’ve got a plan and we’ve got a commitment,” Bush said. “It’s commitment to the people of the Gulf Coast of the United States to see to it that their lives are brighter and better than before the storm.”
Bush also recalled his visit in June to Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tenn., with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. While in Memphis, the two made an unscheduled stop at the National Civil Rights Museum at The Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Bush and Koizumi emerged from a tour to stand on the spot on the motel balcony where King was slain.
They were joined by former NAACP head Benjamin Hooks.
“It’s a powerful reminder of hardships this nation has been through in a struggle for decency,” Bush said. “I was honored that Dr. Hooks took time to visit with me. He talked about the hardships of the movement. With the gentle wisdom that comes from experience, he made it clear we must work as one. And that’s why I have come today.”
Toward the end of his remarks, two protesters interrupted the president, shouting inquiries about Vice President Dick Cheney and the situation in the Middle East. “Don’t worry. I’m almost done,” Bush whispered to NAACP board chairman Julian Bond, one of the dignitaries with him on the stage.
“I know you can handle it,” Bond replied.
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