Bush May Speak at NAACP Convention, Ending Boycott

Times Staff Writer

President Bush is apparently ready to end his boycott of the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, with a possible speech Thursday to the group's national convention here.

Bush's appearance would underscore the GOP's continued efforts to recruit black voters. It would also come as some congressional Republicans have balked at renewing Civil Rights-era voter protection laws and almost a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans -- and criticism began that the Bush administration failed to aid the city's largely poor and black residents.

Negotiations, which have been underway for days, have involved the NAACP's president, Bruce S. Gordon, who has pursued warmer relations with Bush and White House aides, including political strategist Karl Rove.

By Monday it appeared increasingly likely that Bush would speak, although the White House had yet to confirm it with the group, formally known as the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. The convention ends Thursday.

"We would welcome him whenever he wants to come," said John White, a spokesman for the NAACP.

"It would send a signal that he values the importance of black voters, since we represent about 300,000 people," White added. "And the Republicans said they're interested in our votes."

Bush addressed the NAACP as a candidate in 2000, promising that civil rights enforcement would be a "cornerstone" of his presidency and noting that, unlike other Republicans, he was not avoiding the group.

But Bush went on to reject invitations to address each of the five NAACP conventions since he took office, becoming the first president in decades to not address the organization.

Aides blamed Bush's absence on searing attacks by the group's longtime chairman, Julian Bond, whose speech attacking the president in 2004 sparked a federal inquiry into whether the NAACP had violated tax laws requiring nonprofits to refrain from politics.

Bond continued his rhetorical assaults Sunday in his address opening this year's convention, assailing the Iraq war and conservatives' opposition to certain parts of the Voting Rights Act. But noting the location of the 2006 event, Bond added: "This year the convention has come to the president -- and the president, we hope, is coming to it."

The Voting Rights Act offers common ground for Bush and the NAACP. The president has lobbied Congress to renew the law, and White House aides tried to persuade conservatives to drop their opposition. The aides hope that Bush can use an appearance before the convention to talk up his party's votes -- in the House last week and potentially this week in the Senate -- to renew the law for 25 years.

Gordon, a former Verizon Communications executive, has taken a conciliatory approach to relations with the White House, speaking frequently with Rove and other top aides and meeting with Bush on Katrina and other matters.

Although Bush has avoided the potential confrontation of an NAACP speech, he has not shied away from some hostile audiences. In February, he sat on stage for the funeral of Coretta Scott King even as much of the service turned into a political attack on GOP policies.

Other Republicans have spoken to the NAACP over the years. The GOP's national chairman, Ken Mehlman, appeared last year to officially apologize for the party's "Southern strategy" that used race-baiting tactics to mobilize white voters.

White, the NAACP spokesman, said Bush would receive a "polite" response from the thousands of delegates, who are also hearing this week from Democratic politicians, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

White House officials did not respond directly to questions about when, or if, Bush would address the NAACP. But spokesman Tony Snow dropped a hint to reporters on Air Force One as Bush returned Monday from a summit in Russia.

Asked if Bush would address the group on Wednesday, an open day on the president's schedule, Snow said flatly, "No." Asked to clarify, he was more precise: "No, not on Wednesday."

Is Bush speaking this week, a reporter asked.

"Don't know yet," Snow said. "We'll announce when we announce."

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