Washington—President Bush acknowledged his long-running absence from the annual NAACP convention with the expected good humor meant to soften a seemingly insurmountable rift.
After being introduced by Chairman and CEO Bruce Gordon on Thursday, Bush opened with: “Bruce is a polite man. I thought what he was going to say: ‘It’s about time you showed up!’”
“And I’m glad I did,” the president added, later calling Gordon a results-oriented person who met with him in the Oval Office after becoming head of the civil rights group.
Gordon has been credited with making strong efforts to improve relations between the White House and the nation’s largest civil rights movement, speaking frequently with Bush about Hurricane Katrina recovery.
“I don’t know if that helps you or hurts you,” Bush said to Gordon, then telling the laughing crowd, “I don’t expect Bruce to become a Republican, and neither do you. But I do want to work with him and that’s what I am here to talk to you about.”
For five years in a row, Bush has declined invitations to address the annual NAACP convention. This year, with the Senate poised to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Bush said yes.
The White House said Bush wanted to address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to show his commitment to civil rights.
“The president has had five years to prepare for this speech,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, past chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Wednesday. “I hope that this time, he makes it worth the wait.”
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice also attended the event. She received applause as she took her seat shortly before the president spoke.
Democrats have called on Bush to use his appearance to renew the Voting Rights Act. “He could sign it right here on this stage,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., told the NAACP on Wednesday, eliciting cheers from the audience.
Every president for the past several decades has spoken to the Baltimore-based group. Until now, Bush, who received 11 percent of the black vote in 2004, had been the exception. His appearance comes in a critical midterm election year, when Republicans fear losing control of Congress.