PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA - President Bush probably had the right idea when he decided not to appear at last week's 95th annual convention of the NAACP. He seemed to have no friends there.
Typical of the prevalent attitude were the sentiments of Cherry Davis after watching a screening of Michael Moore's controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which is enough to get anyone worked up against the Bush administration.
"I am incensed, enraged and determined to get Bush out," said the Army veteran and NAACP delegate from Jackson, N.J., after the film was shown to an audience of 7,000. "This stirred up emotions in us so much that people were crying. And not because we're scared, because we're mad."
The documentary seemed only to solidify a deep hostility for President Bush's administration that was heard nearly everywhere during the weeklong gathering.
The leadership of the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - the oldest civil rights organization in the nation - set the tone early in the convention last week.
Angry that Bush declined the group's invitation to speak at the gathering, the first president since Herbert Hoover to do so, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume chided Bush for being too thin-skinned over the group's criticism of his administration.
Julian Bond, the organization's chairman, went further, saying Bush was trying to appeal to a small base of civil rights-averse Republicans by snubbing the group.
And at a speech about the significance of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the U.S. Supreme Court case that declared school desegregation unconstitutional 50 years ago, Jesse Jackson proclaimed he was on a no-CARB diet: "No Cheney, no Ashcroft, no Rumsfeld, no Bush."
Although NAACP leaders insist they are being critical, not partisan, the NAACP's critics say the group has discredited itself with incessant Bush bashing.
"This is clearly a partisan organization," said Tara Wall, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. "At one time it was a very well-respected civil rights organization. But this is now their rhetoric, and it has become a more hateful rhetoric of late. ... They say they want dialogue, but all they do is assault and attack."
Wall said the NAACP clearly favored Democrats in its annual report card on Congress. The organization, which awards letter grades to representatives from each state who vote on bills that intersect with the group's agenda, gave all 51 Republican senators F's.
"And they rank them on certain issues but don't include all the issues that African-Americans care about," Wall complained. "These report cards mentioned nothing about tax breaks to small businesses or increased funding to HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities]."
But others point out that for years, the NAACP, and black voters in general, have been more likely to support Democrats based on issues of civil rights, social justice and economic policy.
Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, acknowledges the grades are a result of a clearly tailored NAACP agenda. "We talk about the issues," he said. "Chris Shays is a friend of ours and votes with us more than half of the time - and he's a Republican." Shays, a representative from Connecticut, attended a workshop early in the week about legislative issues. He used his time at the podium to offer constructive criticism to the NAACP, stressing the need for better communication between the group and Republicans.
"If you made a greater effort - if you helped educate them more - you may not feel the frustration you have in the last couple of years," he said.
Keeping lines open
Bond maintains that the organization has been critical of all politicians. "We have a dialogue with [Secretary of Education] Rod Paige, who we disagree with strongly on many things," he said. "We even have a dialogue with [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld. Mfume can call up [Attorney General John] Ashcroft and get him on the phone, despite the strong criticism we've raised about the Patriot Act. ... We just have not had an audience with the president that we badly wanted to have with him."
Shelton said that during the Clinton years, he was invited into the White House's West Wing to discuss the NAACP agenda with the president's staff, but he has not been invited to the Bush White House.
David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank on black issues, said the NAACP hasn't had a relationship as contentious as this with a candidate since Barry Goldwater campaigned on states' rights in 1964.
Bositis said Bush upset black voters during his 2000 campaign by speaking at Bob Jones University, the South Carolina school with a reputation of racial intolerance. He said Bush further alienated them after the 2000 election debacle, which harked back to the days of voter irregularities that the civil rights movement fought to end.
Bush, he said, has never been popular with African-Americans, receiving just 8 percent of the black vote nationwide in 2000. "And in Texas, Bush's own state, he received just 5 percent of the black vote in 2000," Bositis said. "It seemed the more experience black voters had with George Bush, the more they disliked him."
While the NAACP is criticized for its anti-Bush rhetoric, Bositis said the organization's leaders seem to be reflecting their constituents. Larry Turner is one of them. Ask him what's wrong with the Bush presidency, and the convention delegate answers, "Where do I start?"
"First of all, the election gets stolen, then the person who steals the election takes the nation from a surplus to a deficit in six months," he began. "Then he gives tax cuts to his friends, which results in neglect of the already underserved areas. And on top of that, there is this war that is further bleeding the taxpayers."
While Democrats shouldn't take the black vote for granted, said Dot Scott, president of the Charleston, S.C., branch of the NAACP, the Republicans offer blacks little alternative.
"The Democratic Party happens to be the closest party to our needs, but it isn't all we need, it's just the closest," said Scott.
She said the Bush administration's policies are so "anti-minority" that she feels compelled to vote for the candidate in the best position to beat him.
"He hasn't funded No Child Left Behind, [and] this war in Iraq is being fought with African-Americans on the front lines," she said. "Honestly, I'm not surprised he didn't come. There's nothing he could do once these people started booing him."