Sen. John F. Kerry sought to capitalize Thursday on President Bush’s refusal to speak to the NAACP, telling a national gathering of African Americans that he would “talk to all of the people” and not “divide our nation by race.”
“The president may be too busy to speak to you now, but I’ve got news for you: He’s going to have plenty of time after Nov. 2,” Kerry told 3,000 cheering members of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People at the organization’s 95th annual convention.
Since his election as president, Bush has rejected all speaking invitations from the NAACP, America’s oldest civil rights group. White House officials this week cited “hostile” remarks about Bush by NAACP leaders as the reason, a rationale Kerry mocked in his remarks.
“As a campaigner,” Kerry told the crowd, “I know something about scheduling conflicts and hostile environments. But you know what? When you’re president of the United States, you can pretty much say where you want to be and when. When you’re president, you need to talk to all of the people, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.”
From the moment he entered the convention hall, with the disco hit “We Are Family” booming from loudspeakers, the Massachusetts Democrat was greeted with cheers and standing ovations.
The NAACP stop was part of a concerted push by Kerry this week to build support among African Americans. A strong turnout of black voters is crucial to his prospects for carrying some of the nation’s most closely divided states, among them Pennsylvania and Michigan.
An array of black Democrats has complained that Kerry has fallen short in appealing to minority voters, in part by putting too few blacks in the top ranks of his campaign.
The enthusiasm in the convention hall suggested at least some measure of success in Kerry’s dual effort to bolster his support among blacks and to use Bush’s absence to damage his already dismal standing among African Americans. (Nine out of 10 black voters sided against Bush in the 2000 election.)
Leonard Martin, an NAACP delegate from Rome, N.Y., called Bush’s spurning of the organization “a slap in the face.”
“He should have come here, even if he considered it a hostile crowd, and shown he had the chutzpah to stay here and tell people how he really feels,” Martin said. “People would have recognized the fortitude it would have taken.”
Bush spoke to the NAACP while campaigning four years ago, but is the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover not to address the group.
Pressing the issue, Kerry vowed to speak with those who agreed with him and those who didn’t. “I will be a president who is truly a uniter, not one who seeks to divide a nation by race, or riches or by any other label,” Kerry said.
The presumptive Democratic nominee hammered Bush for an “assault by right-wing judges” on civil rights. He pledged to do better than Bush in stopping hate crimes and racial profiling, and he slammed the president’s record on creating jobs for minorities.
“Don’t tell us that unemployment isn’t a problem when you see that African American unemployment is now above 10%, double the rate for whites,” he said. “It is unacceptable, in the wealthiest nation on Earth, that we tolerate vast and growing pockets of poverty, from the hills of Appalachia to the streets of Philadelphia.”
The response from the Bush campaign was caustic.
“John Kerry spewed forth his typical litany of baseless attacks mixed with a healthy dose of pessimism,” Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt said. “President Bush has many supporters who are members of the NAACP and they should be proud of that organization’s legacy of protecting civil rights, even if the current leadership has decided to put partisanship above this common goal. President Bush is the first president ever to ban racial profiling, and he will continue to reach out to African Americans and members of the NAACP across the country.”
The Bush team also took on the NAACP with an article by Education Secretary Rod Paige, who is black, on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.
Paige, an NAACP member, accused the group of engaging in “naked partisan politics.”
“The corrosive rhetoric espoused by the NAACP may make headlines and get out the vote in some quarters, but it is counterproductive, damaging and a betrayal of the organization’s own origins,” Paige wrote.
NAACP Chairman Julian Bond has been especially biting. In 2001, he said Bush’s judicial appointees came “from the Taliban wing of American politics,” and their “devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection.”
At the convention, Bond renewed his criticism of Bush in his introduction of Kerry.
“He said he didn’t come because we criticized him,” Bond said. “But if he didn’t go anywhere people criticize him, he’d never leave home.”
Bush has agreed to appear next Friday before another civil rights group, the National Urban League.
“I think the leadership of the Urban League has certainly worked closely with the president on important priorities and shared priorities,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. “And they have welcomed the president coming and speaking to their organization and having a constructive dialogue on the important issues.”
For Kerry, the run-up to the Democratic National Convention has been a time of reaching out to minorities. On Wednesday, he tapped a new African American political star, Senate candidate Barack Obama of Illinois, to be keynote speaker at the convention in Boston.
Kerry also launched a $2-million ad campaign aimed at African Americans, although black members of Congress -- all of them Kerry supporters -- dismissed the spots as lackluster and disappointing.
On Thursday, Kerry pledged changes to U.S. policy in Africa. On the ethnic violence in the Sudan, for instance, Kerry called for “international humanitarian intervention” and said “those government-sponsored atrocities should be called by their rightful name: genocide.”
For all the applause, however, some remained skeptical.
“I heard some rhetoric, but I need to hear about the plan, the strategy, how he’s going to make all his promises come true,” said retired flight attendant Esther Walker, 60, of Phoenix. “What does he plan to do to make sure that we get the healthcare, that we get all our rights? What is his plan? Does he have a plan?”
From the convention in Philadelphia, Kerry headed to the suburb of Lansdowne, where he held the first in a series of “front porch” visits with families, then to West Virginia for a fund-raiser and rally in Charleston.
Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards, held his own first “front porch” visit in New Orleans, stopping at the home of Donald and Charmaine Carrere. In a 20-minute visit with the Carreres and a dozen neighbors, Edwards touted tax credits to help average Americans pay for healthcare, child care and college tuition.
Times staff writers Edwin Chen and James Rainey contributed to this report.