WASHINGTON – President Bush offered unrestrained support Thursday for renewing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, giving his audience at the NAACP annual convention one of several straws to clutch as he tries to soften the long-running rift between him and the nation's oldest civil rights group.
"President Johnson called the right to vote the lifeblood of our democracy. That was true then, and it remains true today," Bush told the crowd during his first address to the group in his five and a half years as U.S. president.
The Senate was debating renewing the measure on Thursday, and had tentatively scheduled a vote by day's end. The House voted overwhelmingly last week to extend provisions of the landmark civil rights law signed by Johnson after violence erupted in the South over voting rights for blacks.
"I thank the members of the House of Representatives for reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act. Soon, the Senate will take up the legislation. I look forward to the Senate passing this bill promptly, without amendment so I can sign it into law," Bush said.
The president spent much of his speech seeking to find a common thread between him, the Republican Party he leads and African-Americans. He acknowledged his prior absences from the annual National Association for the Advancement of Colored People conventions with the expected good humor meant to lighten the mood.
After being introduced by CEO and Chairman Bruce Gordon, Bush opened with: "Bruce is a polite man. I thought what he was going to say: 'It's about time you showed up!'"
"And I'm glad I did," the president added, later calling Gordon a results-oriented person who met with him in the Oval Office after becoming head of the civil rights group.
Gordon has been credited with making strong efforts to improve relations between the White House and the civil rights group, speaking frequently with Bush about Hurricane Katrina recovery.
"I don't know if that helps you or hurts you," Bush said to Gordon, then telling the laughing crowd, "I don't expect Bruce to become a Republican, and neither do you. But I do want to work with him and that's what I am here to talk to you about."
Bush has declined invitations to address the annual meeting since the 2000 presidential campaign when the group suggested in a campaign ad that Bush's opposition to hate crimes legislation while governor of Texas meant lighter sentences for the three men convicted of the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. Two of the three men were sentenced to death, one earned a life sentence in prison.
This year, with the Senate poised to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Bush agreed to attend the convention. The White House said the president wanted to address the group to show his commitment to civil rights.
Gordon said during his introduction of the president that the convention and the timing of the voting rights bill were directly connected. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi agreed.
"If they had not come to town this bill might not have passed. ... The fact that they were coming brought the bill to the floor," Pelosi said.
During his remarks, the president acknowledged problems the GOP has had in maintaining a relationship with the black community, and said he hoped to improve it.
"I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historical ties to the African-American community. For too long, my party wrote off the African-American vote, and many African Americans wrote off the Republican party," Bush said.
The group voiced its agreement when Bush said racism remains a problem in this country, and many African-Americans continue to distrust Republicans.
"I come from a family committed to civil rights," Bush said. "My faith tells me that we are all children of God — equally loved, equally cherished, equally entitled to the rights He grants us all."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also attended the event. She received applause as she took her seat shortly before the president spoke. Presidential adviser Karl Rove also joined the president.
Toward the end of Bush's speech, a number of protesters were led out of the hall after yelling out attacks on the president, including "Get rid of Dick Cheney! Can you spell Adolph Hitler?"
The president continued speaking uninterrupted.
Every president for the past several decades has spoken to the Baltimore-based group. Until now, Bush, who received 11 percent of the black vote in 2004, had been the exception. His appearance comes in a critical midterm election year, when Republicans fear losing control of Congress.
"The president has had five years to prepare for this speech," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, past chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Wednesday. "I hope that this time, he makes it worth the wait."
White House press secretary Tony Snow said that while political differences remain, Gordon and Bush have good a relationship. Gordon has met with Bush three times in the year he's headed the civil rights group. That compares to one meeting Bush had with Gordon's predecessor, Kweisi Mfume, a former Democratic congressman.
"It is clear that in this nation, racism and discrimination are legally unacceptable, but there are also residues of the past that we have to address," Snow said in previewing the speech. "We have to find ways to make sure that the road to opportunity is clear for one and all."
Snow denied claims that this was Bush's way of atoning for the government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and some black elected officials alleged that indifference to black suffering and racial injustice was to blame for the sluggish reaction to the disaster. In September 2005, Bush's top advisers met with black leaders to discuss their concerns.
Cummings, D-Md., said as the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, Bush needed to explain what he plans to do to help the thousands of families in the Gulf Coast region who remain homeless and jobless.
Bush said he has had continued talks with Gordon over recovery plans for the Gulf Coast. He said the federal government has committed more than $110 billion so far to recovery from last year's devastating hurricane relief, and he is committed to ensuring that contracts go to minority owned businesses.
"The road to recovery is long and difficult, but we will continue to work together ... . We've got a plan and we've got a commitment. And the commitment is not only to work together, but it's a commitment to the people of the Gulf Coast of the United States to see to it that their lives are better and brighter than before the storm," Bush said.
Bush also addressed a number of other issues, including calling for continued support of his No Child Left Behind education initiative; and broader support for minority businesses, participation in the new government drug benefit program and inclusion in private retirement plans.
Cumming said before the speech that the president needed to address other issues of concern to blacks, including access to health care and the minimum wage, which has remained at $5.15 for nearly a decade.
"If the tax cuts are working, why then — at 9 percent — is the unemployment rate in the African American community nearly double the national rate?" Cummings asked.
At the convention center, Bush recalled his visit in June to Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tenn., with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. While in Memphis, the two made an unscheduled stop at the National Civil Rights Museum at The Lorraine Motel, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Bush and Koizumi emerged from a tour to stand on the spot on the motel balcony where King was slain.
They were joined by former NAACP head Benjamin Hooks.
"It's a powerful reminder of hardships this nation has been through in a struggle for decency," Bush said. "I was honored that Dr. Hooks took time to visit with me. He talked about the hardships of the movement. With the gentle wisdom that comes from experience, he made it clear we must work as one. And that's why I have come today.
FOX News' Molly Hooper and The Associated Press contributed to this report.