After four years of refusing to meet with the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group, President Bush sat down at the White House yesterday with NAACP President Kweisi Mfume.
Mfume called it a "very frank, open meeting" that he hoped would mark the end of a rocky relationship between the president and the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Bush spoke to the group while campaigning in 2000 but did not accept invitations thereafter. The estrangement came to a head when Bush refused to speak at the NAACP's annual convention in Philadelphia this summer, blaming rhetoric and name-calling from its leaders.
Mfume stressed that his meeting with Bush - which comes 10 days before his official departure from the NAACP - did not represent a meeting with the civil rights group.
"The relationship between the two of us is one thing, and I think this meeting went a long way toward repairing that," said the ex-chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "While I'm not speaking in any official capacity for the association, because I'll be leaving, I think things are better than they were as a result of the meeting."
On Nov. 5, Mfume wrote to Bush, asking to meet with the president and congratulating him on being re-elected.
On Nov. 30, Bush's senior political strategist, Karl Rove, called Mfume to wish him well as he announced his departure from the NAACP and told Mfume that the president wanted to meet. Rove joined Mfume and Bush yesterday.
"The president began by saying, 'I wanted you here because I want to get your advice; I want your advice and I value it,'" said Mfume after the meeting.
Mfume said he told Bush he disagreed with his plan to privatize Social Security and said they discussed poverty, jobs and education.
When asked whether the president gave Mfume a satisfactory explanation for not meeting sooner, Mfume said, "Satisfactory might be relative."
"I think what I was able to glean from our conversation that 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," Mfume said.
The NAACP has complained that Bush is the only sitting president since Warren Harding not to meet with the group.
Mfume and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond stood by their criticism of Bush, saying it's their job as civil rights watchdogs to be critical.
When Bush refused to attend this summer's NAACP convention, Mfume blamed him for courting black voters like prostitutes, but later he said it was an "inappropriate characterization" born out of frustration.
During the convention, Bond gave a speech in which he criticized the president's policies on education, the war in Iraq and jobs. The speech sparked an Internal Revenue Service audit into the NAACP's tax-exempt status that is continuing.