After long estrangement, Bush reaches out to NAACP

In his speech to the group Thursday, he urged the Senate to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

President Bush's address Thursday to the NAACP represents a confluence of events and circumstances that made the end of his estrangement with the nation's premier African-American civil rights organization possible.

The group's new leadership is key, analysts say. Bruce Gordon, a retired Verizon executive named president of the NAACP a year ago, has developed a good relationship with Mr. Bush, White House officials say. Early in his remarks, Bush praised Mr. Gordon.

"I'm an admirer of Bruce Gordon, and we've got a good working relationship," Bush said. "I don't know if that helps or hurts you, but it's the truth."

Bush noted that after hurricane Katrina, which was particularly tough on poor African-Americans along the Gulf Coast, he and Gordon talked about "what we can do to work together."

In contrast, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond once called the far right of the GOP the "Taliban wing." Former NAACP chair Kweisi Mfume had also spoken critically of the Bush administration. The 2000 election dispute in Florida, in which some black voters claimed violations of their rights, led to fierce criticism. More recently, the IRS has run an inquiry into the NAACP's tax-exempt status, another sore point.

Thursday, the Senate was due to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act, after a delay by some conservative Republicans who objected to provisions affecting some states. In his speech, Bush asserted that "racism still lingers in America" and later called for immediate passage of the act without amendment, causing the Washington Convention Center to erupt in cheers.

Bush addressed the NAACP in 2000, when he was governor of Texas and running for president, but had turned down the group's invitations since then. In the 2000 presidential race, the NAACP Voter Fund ran an ad criticizing Bush for his handling of a hate-crimes bill triggered by the dragging death of a black Texas man.

For decades, since the civil rights movement was championed by Democrats, Republicans have struggled to win black votes, and Bush has been no exception. In 2000, he won 9 percent of the black vote, and in 2004, won 11 percent. Since then, party chair Ken Mehlman has reached out to minority voters, addressing groups around the country and encouraging Republicans of color to run for office. In the fall elections, several prominent races feature black Republicans: the governors' races in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and the Maryland Senate race.

But Bush's job approval among African-Americans remains in the mid-teens. Still, black Democrats applauded Bush for finally addressing the NAACP.

"This [speech] is as much about doing the right thing as it is making an appeal to blacks for political purposes," says Ron Lester, an African-American pollster and sometime consultant for the organization.

"Politically, the Republican Party is not going to pick up a lot through having President Bush speak to the NAACP. But in terms of the level of respect that the president will receive across the board – from suburban voters, from Republican voters, from independents – most people view it as doing the right thing."

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