WASHINGTON – President Bush met Tuesday at the White House with the outgoing head of the NAACP (search), the first meeting of his presidency with the nation's oldest civil rights group.
"It was a very frank and a very open dialogue," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume (search) told reporters afterward. "We both have real differences."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan (search) described the session as "a good discussion about a wide range of issues."
"The president has a long record of reaching out to the African American community, and he will continue to build upon those efforts," McClellan said.
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 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leadership post.
The "surprise invitation" to meet with Bush came from the White House late last week, White said.
The meeting comes after a period of chilled relations between the White House and the NAACP — and after Bush failed to improve on his performance among black voters in the November elections, winning support from only about one in 10.
NAACP board chairman Julian Bond has condemned the administration's policies on education, the economy and the war in Iraq and urged high black voter turnout to defeat Bush for re-election. And Mfume once described Bush's black supporters as "ventriloquists' dummies."
Earlier this year, Bush refused an invitation to speak at the group's annual convention. Though he had addressed the 2000 convention when he was first running for president, Bush has declined each year of his presidency, becoming the first president since Herbert Hoover to do so.
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.
In those sessions, Bush typically asserts that his administration's prescription of tax relief, increased home ownership, education reform — including school vouchers — and support for the involvement of religious charities in government programs is doing more than the traditional programs of Democrats to address the nation's ills that hit blacks particularly hard.
Mfume said the president asked for his advice on a range of issues including Social Security, the image of law enforcement, affordable health care and education reform — despite his being one of Bush's "more vocal critics."
The outgoing NAACP leader said he hoped the session would "at least begin the process for future dialogue between the administration and the NAACP."
As for Bush's previous snubs of the group, Mfume said he partly understood the president's explanation.
"He was concerned not so much about any potential humiliation of himself, but protecting the office of the presidency from any sort of humiliation that might have occurred," he said. "I think he does have some validity in the fact that protecting the presidency from public humiliation, whether it's he or someone else, as president, is important."