WASHINGTON – Since the days of Warren G. Harding (search), presidents have met at the White House with leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (search). Not President Bush — at least not yet.
More than halfway through his presidency, Bush has yet to receive the nation's oldest civil rights group or the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights (search), an umbrella organization.
The president met with the Congressional Black Caucus (search) for just an hour or so during his first month in office, but has not responded to a half-dozen subsequent requests to meet again.
While Bush, who got only 9 percent of the black vote in 2000, has shunned sit-downs with established black groups, he has reached out to carefully chosen minority audiences and to civil rights advocates less critical of his policies. One example is the National Urban League (search), whose annual conference in Pittsburgh Bush is addressing on Monday.
NAACP president Kweisi Mfume (search) said he requested meetings with Bush in 2001 and 2002, and "was told politely, in writing, that he'd love to meet, but his schedule just didn't allow it."
"That may be the difference between Bush and his father," Mfume said. "While we certainly did not agree on many issues, you can never accuse George H.W. Bush of not taking time to reach out and to listen. He wasn't aloof like this president."
The White House disagrees.
"The president ... talks to a variety of groups from across the political spectrum and reaches out to people from all walks of life," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said last week when pressed on why Bush decided to speak to the Urban League but skipped the recent NAACP convention in Miami.
It was Florida's contested recount that put Bush over the top in the 2000 race. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights later found that the ballots of black voters in the state were disproportionately tossed out and the election was plagued by faulty machinery, among other problems.
Political analysts say the president's re-election effort is not targeting liberal blacks, but wealthy, conservative churchgoing blacks as a way to increase Bush's share of the black vote this time around. Recent Gallup polls find that fewer than three in 10 blacks approve of Bush's performance as president.
Bush did reach out to the NAACP as a candidate.
In a July 2000 speech at the NAACP convention in Baltimore, he promised strong civil rights enforcement. He also said, "I am here because I believe there is so much that we can do together to advance racial harmony and economic opportunity."
Civil rights leaders are pleased with the diversity of Bush's team. It includes three blacks — Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Education Ron Paige and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
They praise Bush's $15 billion global AIDS initiative, but note that Congress has failed to fully fund it. They are happy that Bush toured Africa, but say the five-day, five-nation trip lacked substance.
They back Bush's decision to position U.S. troops off the coast of Liberia, but wish he would order them ashore to quell bloody unrest in the West African nation.
They are unqualified in their opposition to Bush's nomination of conservatives to federal judgeships. They also opposed his tax cuts and the soaring federal deficit that Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has called "a death warrant for social programs for decades to come."
Bond strongly criticized some of Bush's choices from the beginning, such as John Ashcroft for attorney general. "This confirms the correctness of blacks voting 9-to-1 against Governor Bush," Bond said at the time.
Bush's decision to avoid the NAACP breaks a tradition that dates almost as far back as 1909, when the organization was founded. The first White House meetings were cursory.
"It's outrageous and insulting that he's not met with the NAACP and it's certainly contrary to decades of history," said Ralph Neas, who was president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights for 15 years and met with Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton.
President Harding barely did more than meet with the NAACP's James Weldon Johnson and other black leaders for "five minutes here or there," Kenneth O'Reilly wrote in his book, "Nixon's Piano," about presidents and racial politics.
Former NAACP heads have met with 11 consecutive presidents from both parties — Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, the first President Bush and Clinton.
"I thought it was a little hypocritical that the president would travel across the ocean to meet with African leaders, but could not find the time to meet with myself or with any other black leaders of any consequence in this country," Mfume said.
During his early session with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bush said, "I hope you come back, and I'll certainly be inviting." But there have been no other invitations.
In protest, caucus chairman, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., boycotted a meeting Bush had this month with lawmakers to discuss his Africa trip.
"He talks to leaders all the time and meets with people all the time on a variety of those (civil rights) issues," McClellan said in defense of the president. "And he certainly meets with congressional leaders on a regular basis on a variety of different issues."
As this relationship has suffered, civil rights advocates say, so have civil rights laws. They note that Bush announced his opposition to the University of Michigan affirmative action admissions programs on Jan. 15 — the actual birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
"These policy decisions illustrate a pattern of hostility toward core civil rights values, and signal a diminished commitment to the ideal of nondiscrimination," according to a report issued by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.