President Bush finally got around to speaking to an annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Thursday, and he did a reasonably good job of making amends for failing to build a relationship with the nation's most influential civil rights organization during the first five years of his presidency.
To his credit Bush opened his remarks by acknowledging the inappropriateness of his refusals of past invitations from the group – a pattern that made him the first president since Warren G. Harding to so snub the NAACP.
Referring to his introduction by NAACP president Bruce Gordon, the president joked, "Bruce was a polite guy. I thought what he was going to say, 'It's about time you showed up.' And I'm glad I did."
Bush also acknowledged the extent to which his Republican Party has neglected and insulted the African-American community in recent years.
"I understand that racism still lingers in America -- it's a lot easier to change a law than to change a human heart. And I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party," Bush admitted, adding that, "I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historical ties with the African-American community," Bush said. "For too long, my party wrote off the African-American vote, and many African-Americans wrote off the Republican Party."
Those were statements that had to be made if Bush was to be taken seriously at the podium. And the president and his aides deserve credit for recognizing and responding to that requirement.
The president also deserves credit for recognizing that apologies are not enough.
Bush needed to display an understanding that baseline commitments must be made by a political leader who seeks any kind of working relationship with the NAACP and with the tens of millions of Americans who share the group's belief that the struggle for social and economic justice is far from complete. On Thursday, he offered just such a commitment, and he did so with proper enthusiasm.
Speaking of legislation to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act – which some Congressional Republicans have openly opposed and others have sought to undermine with amendments – Bush told the crowd, "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." (Within hours, the Senate passed the legislation unanimously.)
The president earned a round of loud and sincere applause for that statement.
That was as it should be. Though there is still too much distance between this president and the civil rights community, George Bush has finally taken a first small step to bridge the gap. Of course, he should have done so sooner. But his decision to do so at this point – and to offer both good words and good deeds – ought not be diminished.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize this president and his administration. But when George Bush does something right – even if it is late in the game, and even if his motivations may be tinged with politics – he deserves the measure of praise that might encourage him to continue trying to walk the higher ground.