By Dana Milbank
Friday, July 21, 2006; A02
President Bush was benefiting from the soft bigotry of low expectations when he addressed the NAACP convention yesterday. But that wasn't quite enough to get him through.
The president was ending his five-year boycott of the nation's largest civil rights organization, and the group was doing its best to "welcome the stranger," as Chairman Julian Bond put it, graciously. When Bush arrived, organizers whisked "Grey's Anatomy" actor Isaiah Washington off the stage, even though he was only 49 seconds into his speech.
Gravity, however, could be defied only so long. A little while after Bush acknowledged that "many African Americans distrust my political party," four men in the Massachusetts section rose to demonstrate that distrust by shouting epithets at the president. The ruckus continued until Bond got up and walked behind Bush to make sure the miscreants were removed.
"Don't worry about it," Bush said. "I'm almost finished." He displayed the enthusiasm of a man undergoing an uncomfortable medical procedure.
"I know you can handle it," Bond consoled.
An hour later, the White House released a transcript omitting that exchange and describing the disruption as "applause."
That wasn't the only airbrushing going on. For what may have been the first time since the 2001 attacks, Bush gave a full-length speech with no mention of terrorism, Iraq or the Middle East. "Compassion" was back, and it was as if, for a moment, the past five years had never happened. Bush, suffering from the recent departure of chief speechwriter Mike Gerson, reprised some of the greatest hits of his first campaign for the presidency:
"We must challenge a system that simply shuffles children through." (C. 2000)
"We ought to welcome religious institutions into helping solve and save America one soul and one heart at a time." (C. 1998)
"Organizations of faith exist to love a neighbor like they'd like to be loved themselves." (C. 1999)
"Government . . . cannot put hope in a person's heart or a sense of purpose in a person's life." (C. 2000)
And, of course: "We need to challenge the soft bigotry of low expectations." (C. 1999)
Since he first uttered those compassionate phrases, Bush has won a mere 10 percent of the black vote in two elections, and his relations with civil rights leaders have been sour. He nodded to that recent history yesterday with some clever self-deprecation.
After a no-frills introduction by NAACP President Bruce Gordon, Bush thanked him for being polite. "I thought he was going to say, 'It's about time you showed up.' " Noting his "good working relationship" with Gordon, Bush got appreciative laughter with an aside to Gordon: "I don't know if that helps you or hurts you."
The president offered the ritual GOP mea culpa -- "for too long my party wrote off the African American vote" -- and paid respect to Bond. "I asked him for a few pointers on how to give a speech. It doesn't look like they're taking."
Bush may have been thinking of Bond's speech opening this week's convention, in which he said the president has "run the country into the ground . . . continued an assault on our civil liberties and civil rights, orchestrated a massive transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top, increased poverty every year they've been in office, created dangerous deficits, substituted religion for science, ignored global warming, wrecked environmental protections."
That was only a marginal improvement on Bond's view a few years back that Bush had "appeased the wretched appetites of the extreme right wing and chosen Cabinet officials whose devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection."
With that for an invitation, it's a wonder Bush didn't continue his boycott. But then, Bush has shown a masochistic streak this week. In Russia, he let himself be filmed massaging the German chancellor's shoulders and was heard using a vulgarity with the British prime minister. At home, he cast his first veto on a stem cell bill that enjoys vast public support.
When he arrived at the Washington Convention Center yesterday, Bush was ready to flatter, from an opening paean to "the heroism of the civil rights movement and the accomplishments of the NAACP" to a closing vow to sign promptly a renewal of the Voting Rights Act. He used the word "together" 15 times and dropped the names of prominent African Americans such as Benjamin Hooks, a former leader of the NAACP. "Good to see you again, sir. . . . You know what I'm talking about, Jesse. . . . I got a friend named Tony Evans. . . . You know, one of my friends is Bob Johnson, the founder of BET."
The audience reciprocated: Bush got a standing ovation when he entered, and the 90 percent applauding easily drowned out the boos from the other 10 percent. The White House transcript listed 57 incidents of "applause" in the 33-minute speech -- and the vast majority of those were genuine. For every grumbled retort offered by an audience member, there was a cry of "yes!" or "right!"
There were, inevitably, episodes of booing and cries of "no!" -- as when Bush affirmed that "I strongly believe in charter schools, in public school choice." But history may overlook such tense moments: The booing, like the heckling, was omitted from the White House transcript.