President Bush declined to speak at the NAACP's annual convention for a fourth time, the organization announced yesterday. The president's decision means he will be the first sitting president since Warren G. Harding not to address the NAACP.
A White House spokeswoman said Bush had a scheduling conflict, but would not specify the conflict with the six-day convention, which is scheduled to open Saturday in Philadelphia. Bush last addressed the NAACP convention in 2000, as a presidential candidate.
Bush's decision comes after the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign and the Republican National Committee have pledged to reach out more to black voters. Black voters have preferred Democratic presidential candidates by a 9 to 1 margin.
"It's really a shame that the president of the United States is not taking advantage of the opportunity to engage the nation's largest and oldest civil rights organization," said Hillary Shelton, a spokesman for the NAACP's Washington office. Shelton said Harding, who died of a heart attack in 1923, before his term ended, was the last sitting president not to attend an NAACP convention.
Bush also declined an invitation to speak at last week's gathering of the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights organization, for the fourth time. "He has not attended our conventions, as well as our sister organizations'," said Raul Yzaguirre, La Raza's president. "Apparently we're not enough of a priority to merit his time."
Bush last attended the La Raza convention in 2000. He also addressed a conference of the National Urban League in 2003
Black Americans and Hispanic Americans are the nation's largest minority groups, and Scott Stanzel, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said there is an "aggressive effort to reach out to African American and Hispanic voters that's ongoing."
Devona Dolliole, a spokeswoman for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, disagreed: "It is clear that Bush only uses African Americans when it is convenient for him, not because he's sensitive to their issues. His civil rights record is abysmal."
But Alvin Williams, president and CEO of the conservative-leaning Black America's political action committee, said the president may have had other motives. During the 2000 presidential campaign, he said, the NAACP endorsed a series of ads depicting the heinous dragging death of a black man in Texas.
"I think they placed the blame at Bush's feet when he was governor, and I think he was, rightly, greatly insulted by that," Williams said.
But, he added: "BAMPAC's position is, it's always in the president's interest to address groups like the NAACP to articulate his continued vision and leadership for this country."