The crowd was polite. Some even gave Bush a standing ovation when he rose to speak. The governor said some good things, but you had to get the feeling he was telling folks pretty much what they wanted to hear, as opposed to what they needed to hear. America doesn't need racial harmony as much as it needs racial candor. Thus, Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan - who pulls no verbal punches but will never get an invitation to speak at a convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - is just as important in the racial dialogue as Bush or Democratic candidate Vice President Al Gore.
"Some in my party have avoided the NAACP," Bush honestly admitted. It would have been more honest to tell convention attendees why. First, there's that affirmative action thing, which many (probably most) blacks still support, while Republicans want to scrap it to return to those hallowed days when jobs were supposedly handed out on merit. Any white or African-American living in reality should be suspicious of those who want to return to something that never existed. The only thing we could possibly "return" to is the good-old-boy network, which has never really left us.
Then there's the inexorable whitening of the Republican Party over the years, which started in the 1960s. Republicans had substantial black support at one time. Jackie Robinson, the Hall of Fame baseball player who broke the major-league color barrier, supported Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. But after 1964, many Dixiecrats - southern Democrats - defected to the Republican Party. A survey pollster Ron Lester did for the Democratic National Committee in 1998 found 82 percent of black voters identified themselves as Democrats, up from 74 percent in 1994. Black Republicans exist in the year 2000 in spite of the defections.
"Racism still exists today," the governor continued. "There is no escaping the reality that the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln." How could it, with Dixiecrats rampaging through the party like rogue elephants?
But there's more to Republican-NAACP differences than the harboring of known race-baiters. There's a philosophical conflict, which Bush alluded to without specifically mentioning. Addressing the topic of education, Bush said that failing public schools should have three years to show improvement. If they don't, "the resources must go to the parents, so the parents can make a different choice."
The resources would be those spelled M-O-N-E-Y. Bush was talking about vouchers, which the NAACP vehemently opposes. Actually, the official NAACP policy is that the organization disapproves of public money being used for vouchers. (It's a curious position. The NAACP doesn't mind public money being used for most everything else.) Many of the delegates probably support the NAACP's stand, but polls show the majority of blacks favor vouchers.
Bush's speech would have been a lot more exciting if he had mentioned that fact. He would have received some hisses and catcalls, but he would have livened things up a bit. Instead of pandering to the delegates, he should have challenged them.
"Why do African-Americans support vouchers but continually vote for liberal Democrats who oppose them?" he should have asked. "Liberal Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to destroy public education by advocating vouchers.
Some blacks have echoed that criticism. But wouldn't black private schools and faith-based African-American Christian and Islamic schools benefit from vouchers?
No one would have broken out the tar and feathers. NAACP delegates aren't those kind of folks. There may have been a good deal of harumphing heard throughout the Convention Center ballroom; but at least "Dubya" would have gotten some black folks thinking about the great African-American knee-jerk impulse to vote Democratic.
Traditional Democratic dogma - and, for all practical purposes, NAACP dogma, the organization's claims of nonpartisanship notwithstanding - holds that the way to solve America's education crisis is to pump more tax dollars into public schools, many of which aren't getting the job done.
Skeptical African-Americans know that lack of discipline, nonexistent parental involvement and truancy are factors in failing public schools. And they know these problems can be solved with little or no money.
The governor of Texas could have spoken of all of that and injected some life into what has been, so far, a dull presidential campaign. Alas, he chose to be nonconfrontational, then walked off in a blaze of banality.