Speaking with a touch of melancholy to an appreciative audience, Bill Clinton addressed the NAACP yesterday for the last time as president, mixing politics and pride in an overt pitch for the election of his chosen successor, Vice President Al Gore.
Clinton's appearance on the final day of the 91st annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was a carefully orchestrated passing of the torch. The president took time off from a high-stakes Middle East peace summit at Camp David, but the drama of his speech was intentionally diminished.
A day after Gore wowed the NAACP delegates with a dramatic entrance through the crowd and soaring rhetoric, Clinton struck a far more somber tone. He extolled the economic and social advances of the past 7 1/2 years, pumped up Gore's candidacy and took a few swipes at Gore's Republican opponent for the White House, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
This time, the entrance came from behind the stage, and the tone was that of a valedictory good-bye. Above all, Clinton came to thank an organization and a black community that has stood by him through his political perils, his scandals and his impeachment.
"I wanted to come here one last time to say thank you, a simple, deep thank you, for your support, your prayers, your friendship over all these years," Clinton told a crowd that waved tiny American flags and groaned when he mentioned he would be out of office in 5 1/2 months.
NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume joined the act, speaking of the Clinton presidency in the past tense. When Bond lamented that Clinton had to cancel his originally scheduled speech Tuesday to attend Middle East peace talks, he added that the president "cared enough to send the very best," a reference to Gore and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Senate candidate.
For all the sentimentality, the NAACP convention ended with a sense of triumph. A civil rights organization that until recently was losing members and money has basked all week in the attention it was receiving from the political world. Bush, Gore and the Clintons beat a path to their door, keeping the convention in the media spotlight for almost a week.
"The organization has righted itself," Mfume proclaimed.
Clinton praised the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group, saying he wanted to leave Camp David to address the convention "because you embody the to capture there, that we need so badly in our talks."
And the admiration was mutual. The black community was the first that Clinton turned to for forgiveness after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, and that forgiveness has not lessened.
"Maybe it will be that Mr. Clinton's legacy revolves more around his desire to find a way to reach out to all people and to put a human face on the presidency," Mfume said later, "and to say in the process, 'Yes, not only am I human, but I've made mistakes. I've failed, but my heart is true and my heart is pure.'"
Clinton spent considerable time framing his legacy, with a litany of good economic news and optimism about a "social fabric [that] is on the mend."
The latest White House annual report on the nation's children - released yesterday - found that teen birth rates are the lowest on record, teen birth rates among African-Americans have fallen by nearly one-third since 1991, and the rate of violent crimes committed by juveniles has been cut by more than half since 1993, to the lowest level on record.
But Clinton warned that "how a nation deals with its prosperity is just as stern a test of its judgment, its vision and its values as how a nation deals with adversity. ... We will never forgive ourselves if we don't say we are going to use this moment to build the future of our dreams for all God's children."
That segued into Clinton's main pitch: politics. He slammed Senate Republicans for voting down a black judicial nominee from Missouri, a vote that could have ramifications for the closely contested Senate race this fall between that state's incumbent, Republican Sen. John Ashcroft, and Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan.
Clinton excoriated the Senate for holding up four other black judicial nominees, and he had special words for the "travesty of justice taking place in Texas," where a Latino lawyer, Enrique Moreno, is being blocked from the bench by Texas' Republican senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Phil Gramm, who contend that Moreno is unqualified.
"And the leader of the Republican Party in Texas, who I think talked here a couple of days ago? Stone cold silence," Clinton said in his most direct swipe at Bush.
Bush campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan said the governor believes judicial appointments are the Senate's purview and has deferred to Gramm and Hutchison. He defended Bush's record of appointments, saying that 52 percent of the governor's appointees have been women or minorities.
"President Clinton's constant attacks on the governor are signs of weakness and a lack of leadership in the Gore campaign," the Bush spokesman said.
But those attacks seemed to have made an impact on NAACP members, as did the passing of the torch to Gore.
"I felt Al Gore was always an advocate for us," said DeWayne McIntosh of Arizona. "However, I didn't feel he was as aggressive as an advocate as he is now. I don't think African-Americans really knew who Al Gore was, because he was standing in the shadow of Bill Clinton. That should be changing."
Clinton finished his speech with a strong plug for Gore.
"He's the most qualified person we've ever had, because he's the best vice president," said Clinton. "He'll keep the prosperity going. He understands the future. And the fourth and most important thing for your point of view, he really does want to take us all along for the ride."