By Colbert I. King
Saturday, July 22, 2006; A17
It was good of President Bush to show up at the NAACP convention this week, given his failure to make an appearance during the past five years. But to listen to the speech Bush delivered on Thursday after Sunday's address by NAACP Chairman Julian Bond was to hear a president playing his audience cheap.
It wasn't that Bond's speech was scintillating while the president's was dull, ponderous or anything like that. Bush was, to no one's surprise, appropriately self-deprecating -- a disarming tactic that often works with an unfriendly audience. And he struck all the right notes about slavery, racism, segregation and discrimination: "The record placed a stain on America's founding, a stain that we have not yet wiped clean," and "I understand that racism still lingers in America. It's a lot easier to change a law than to change a human heart."
Bush even owned up to the GOP's back-of-the-hand to African Americans: "For too long my party wrote off the African American vote, and many African Americans wrote off the Republican Party."
But his speech was significant for what he, as president of the United States, did not say in response to the markers that Bond laid down earlier in the week. The president cannot argue that he wasn't given the chance to make his case on some of the major issues of the day: Iraq, his fiscal policies and his approach to the use of presidential powers in wartime. The audience of 2,200 men and women representing millions more needed to hear him out. Bush, instead, spoke to the assembled as if they were strictly a narrow special-interest group concerned only about his administration's work in Katrina relief, the new Medicare drug benefit, the No Child Left Behind Act, funding for historically black universities, home ownership, small business loans, AIDS funding at home and in Africa, and the Voting Rights Act. At any rate, Bush elected to limit himself to those topics.
To be sure, the NAACP largely consists of men and women whose forefathers helped build America even as they were cheated out of liberty. But Bush failed to also see the conventioneers -- and the people they represent -- as Americans, 75 percent of whom live above the poverty line and pay taxes, and many of whom have relatives, friends and neighbors contributing directly to the nation's defense.
NAACP President Bruce Gordon said on Monday that he wanted Bush to come to the convention "to demonstrate the fact that he's our president." That is exactly what Bush should have done. Instead, Bush chose to assume the role of the "panderer" rather than "commander"-in-chief, putting his audience in a box and talking to its members about what he thought they would like to hear.
Left untouched were three of the most pressing issues that Bond raised on Sunday: the massive transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top and the growing gap between the haves and have-nots; dangerous deficits; and the war in Iraq, which is costing both lives and money. On those, not a peep from Bush.
Yet look at the service members appearing on The Post's "Faces of the Fallen" pages depicting Americans who have died in Iraq. It's clear that African Americans and other people of color are amply represented. Chances are that members of the NAACP have as many -- probably more -- sons and daughters in military uniforms overseas in harm's way as do all the Washington think tank war hawks and foreign policy elites combined.
If any group needed to hear from the president why he is prosecuting a soon-to-be half-trillion-dollar war that is costing precious young lives, it was the NAACP convention that heard him speak on Thursday. If any gathering of Americans deserved to hear the president explain why, according to Bond, 5.4 million people have slipped below the poverty line during his administration, it was the NAACP family.
If any group deserved to be told how the president could justify eavesdropping, torture and indefinite detention unsanctioned by law or the courts, it was the NAACP annual convention, which every year sings the praises of the rule of law.
And if ever there was a time for the president, an exporter of democracy to the Middle East, to talk about extending democracy in the nation's capital to Washingtonians unrepresented on Capitol Hill, it was at this week's gathering of America's oldest civil rights organization.
It was not to be. Bush apparently thought that merely showing up, dropping a few names, mentioning a few programs that address -- but that won't eliminate -- racial disparities, all in just 33 minutes, was enough. In some conservative circles, it probably was.
And that's why the stain is not yet wiped clean.