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POLITICS ’88 : Bush, Given Warm Reception By NAACP, Promises ‘Positive’ Civil Rights Agenda

Times Staff Writer

As the nation’s premier black politician was denied a spot on the Democratic ticket, Vice President George Bush on Tuesday won a warm reception from black Americans when he said that as President he would stand for a “positive” civil rights agenda that would cast aside the “tired old baggage of bigotry.”

Before thousands of delegates at the annual NAACP convention, Bush did not refer specifically to Democrat Michael S. Dukakis’ choice to pass over the Rev. Jesse Jackson as vice presidential nominee in favor of Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen.

But the Republican presidential candidate did praise Jackson, a Democrat he has repeatedly criticized on the campaign trail. Bush, in his consistent assaults on liberals, has characterized Jackson as existing on the far left of the political spectrum.

“I have profound differences with Jesse on many of these issues, but I salute him for running the race, for being heard,” Bush said. “He deserves a salute from us.”

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‘Opens a Window’ for Bush

Black leaders at the convention, meanwhile, expressed shock that Bentsen was appointed on the eve of a planned Dukakis speech to the NAACP delegates. The organization’s chairman, Dr. William F. Gibson, said the choice “opens a window” for Bush to maneuver for black votes.

In a speech interrupted a dozen times by applause, Bush said that his pro-family, pro-education and anti-drug stands will strengthen black America, and he reiterated his plans to pump more money into programs for youth and for black entrepreneurs.

In a tacit acknowledgement of the bad blood between blacks and the Reagan Administration--and specifically the Justice Department, which is seen as attempting to turn back the clock on civil rights gains made during the last several decades--Bush vowed that it was “a new day.”

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“I guarantee you, I will be personally involved in protecting the civil rights of all Americans,” Bush insisted. “This effort will be at the top of the agenda of my attorney general, and he or she will be directly accountable to me for results.”

“I intend to stand for a new harmony among the races,” Bush added. “We are on a journey to a new century and we must finally leave the tired old baggage of bigotry behind us. Wherever racism rears its ugly head--Howard Beach, Forsyth County, wherever--we must be there to cut it off.”

Racial Incidents

The vice president was referring to racial incidents in New York and Georgia which have exacerbated tensions between blacks and whites.

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Bush has been courting the black community for months, meeting in May with prominent black leaders whom he invited to his vice presidential estate, and last month telling graduates of a largely black college that he would increase federal financing to assist black businesses.

He repeated those plans Tuesday, vowing to “restore and reinvigorate” the Commerce Department’s Office of Minority Business Enterprise, whose financing the Reagan Administration has curtailed.

Still, black leaders have given Bush only spare chances of knocking out presumptive Democratic nominee Dukakis in the traditionally Democratic black community this November. But some delegates said Tuesday that Dukakis’ selection of Bentsen as vice president--and more importantly, the absence of Jackson--has dampened enthusiasm for the Democrats and could make black voters more open-minded about Bush.

“I think it opens a window that was not there before,” Gibson said. “It does open a window, a new window.”

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Surprised at Timing

The leaders said their surprise at Bentsen’s selection came from several factors--including the timing on the eve of Dukakis’ speech to the NAACP delegates.

“I am primarily shocked at the timing,” said Dr. Benjamin Hooks, the NAACP’s executive director. “I had just not anticipated that the day before he was to speak here. . . .”

“I don’t think there’s any question that it dampens the enthusiasm immediately and maybe temporarily,” he added.

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Gibson also described his reaction as shock.

But Hooks, who gave Bush a warm introduction before his speech, suggested that Dukakis could well recover his standing in the black community.

“If Nixon arose from Watergate and Reagan from Iran (the Iran-Contra scandal), Dukakis can rise from this,” he said. “This does not reach the dimensions of Watergate and Iran-Contra.

“We’re a 10-day country. Events do not stay much. You can overcome almost anything if you get out of it alive.”

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