In anticipation of President Bush’s speech before the NAACP today, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told USA Today that after refusing to address the organization the first five years of his presidency, "I hope that this time, he makes it worth the wait."
It was not. Bush used a mix of humor, frankness and attempts to mimic the cadences of the black church to sell a set of policies that generally fell flat when delivered to the audience at the Washington Convention Center.
Bush even acknowledged as much halfway through his speech.
“I asked [NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond] for a few pointers on how to give a speech,” Bush said, to scattered laughter. “It doesn’t look like they’re taking.”
Here’s why. Rather than use the speech to announce bold policies that would address the concerns at the top of the civil rights organization’s agenda or to rally the nation behind at least some of that agenda, Bush offered a mélange of warmed-over conservative nostrums and half-baked facts.
He also said nothing about the number one issue on the national agenda, the war in Iraq, even though that war has taken a disproportionate toll on African Americans , who comprise about a quarter of the nation’s enlisted soldiers despite making up only 12 percent of the general populace.
He spent a significant amount of his speech talking about “ownership,” starting with the seemingly benign initiatives in the Department of Housing and Urban Development to encourage home ownership and climaxing with the downright dangerous allusion to Social Security privatization, couched as “ownership in the government pension.”
His home ownership policies, however, have done little to soften the blow of skyrocketing property values that have made it hard for both owners and renters to afford a roof over their heads. His resurrection of Social Security privatization was an attempt to recast breaking a social compact among generations with their government as “owning” something that people can pass on to their heirs. Unsaid, of course, is that this “ownership” would mean that people are left on their own, at the mercies of Wall Street’s whims.
Bush used Robert Johnson—the multimillionaire who founded Black Entertainment Television and now has an ownership stake in several ventures, including an NBA basketball franchise—to justify his support for abolishing the estate tax. The “death tax,” as he put it, would keep people like Johnson from passing on their millions to their heirs.
As TomPaine writers have repeatedly noted, the estate tax does no such thing, and that a sizable number of wealthy entrepreneurs, such as Warren Buffett, oppose its repeal. In that light, evoking the image of government seizing the hard-won earnings of an African-American man and leaving his family with nothing was galling, and appropriately won little applause from the NAACP conventioneers.
The audience was not impressed with Bush’s reference to his support of federal aid to faith-based institutions , even though the NAACP’s membership includes a number of clergy members who have been beneficiaries of government faith-based grants. “I believe in neighborhood helpers and healers,” Bush said, defending what he said was $5 billion in government funds to faith-based groups his administration has given. “We should not discriminate based on religion.”
The president also did not get much applause when he talked about the $110 billion in aid to New Orleans and Gulf Coast communities affected by Hurricane Katrina. Almost every aspect of the government’s program has been bungled or infused with corruption—this week’s reports of Department of Homeland Security employees ripping off emergency aid funds being only the latest example.
Bush received his biggest cheers when he called on the Senate to pass the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, which has already passed the House. Critics have noted that in a meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2005, Bush didn’t seem to know what the Voting Rights Act was or realize that it was about to expire. He claims to be on the good side of that issue, even though the White House appeared powerless when members of his own party in the House nearly derailed the reauthorization effort. Senate Leader Bill Frist, one of Bush’s closest allies, hadn’t even scheduled a Senate vote on the VRA until after Bush announced he would be speaking at the NAACP convention.
Bush got a respectful hearing during the event, as he should have. But his expressed support for the No Child Left Behind Act is easily rebutted by Democratic supporters of the act who note that he has gutted its funding. His boast of a 40 percent increase in minority business loans by his Small Business Administration is countered by minority business organizations who say they have seen declining support .
Those were just some of the examples of how Bush tried to use the NAACP to sell African-Americans a package of empty promises and misleading platitudes. It is clear that if Bush had sat out the NAACP convention for the rest of his term, the NAACP and the African-American community would not have missed anything.
--Isaiah J. Poole
| Thursday, July 20, 2006 11:59 AM