President Bush and outgoing NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume met at the White House yesterday in what Mfume described as a frank, "man-to-man" discussion aimed at fixing the broken relationship...
WASHINGTON — President Bush and outgoing NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume met at the White House yesterday in what Mfume described as a frank, “man-to-man” discussion aimed at fixing the broken relationship between the president and the nation’s oldest and largest civil-rights organization.
Joined by the president’s chief political strategist, Karl Rove, Bush and Mfume spent much of their nearly 40-minute conversation discussing the strained relationship between Bush and the NAACP.
“We both have real differences,” Mfume told reporters.
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Last summer, Bush pointedly turned down an invitation to address the organization’s national convention for the fourth consecutive year, calling his relationship with the group “basically nonexistent.” The NAACP said Bush was the first president since Warren Harding who did not address the civil-rights group while in office.
The meeting came about after Mfume sent Bush a letter on Nov. 5 congratulating him on his re-election and requesting the chance to discuss challenges confronting the nation, said John White, the group’s spokesman. Mfume announced Nov. 30 he is stepping down from the NAACP leadership post.
Mfume said he hoped the encounter could set the stage for “future dialogue between the NAACP and the White House.”
In the past, Bush has said he refused to address the NAACP because of what he perceived as its unfair criticism of his policies, from his decision to invade Iraq to his opposition to many affirmative-action programs. In yesterday’s meeting, Bush explained that he refused to address the NAACP not because he personally feared a hostile reception from the group but because he thought such a reception would demean the presidency and embarrass the United States before the world, Mfume said. “That was something that was in his gut,” Mfume said.
Bush has generally avoided sit-downs with other established black civil-rights groups as well, for instance meeting only rarely with the Congressional Black Caucus. But he has reached out to carefully chosen minority audiences and to civil-rights advocates less critical of his policies such as the National Urban League.
Scott McClellan, Bush’s press secretary, called the meeting an extension of the president’s policy of working with people willing to work with him. During the meeting, Mfume said, Bush sought his advice on a number of issues, “particularly issues affecting race in this country.”
Julian Bond, the NAACP’s board chairman, who has been sharply critical of Bush and many Republicans — who he once said “draw their most rabid supporters from the Taliban wing of American politics” — issued a statement saying he welcomed the meeting. Earlier this year, the IRS launched an investigation into whether those earlier remarks by Bond violated the NAACP’s tax-exempt status.
“After being shut out of the White House for four years, we look forward to discussion about our differences — and even agreement when our agendas intersect,” Bond said in his statement.