KWEISI MFUME had that "Lyndon Johnson" gleam in his eye.
The man whose name means "conquering son of kings" strode yesterday into the press room of the NAACP's national headquarters to a welcome fit for, well, a conquering son of kings. The assembled NAACP staffers and some of the reporters cheered and gave him a standing ovation. As Mfume smiled and waved, it reminded me of how happy President Lyndon Johnson looked the day he left office.
For those of you who either don't remember or weren't around, it was on Jan. 20, 1969, that Johnson, wearing a smile so broad it could have reached back to his ranch in Texas, gleefully clasped hands and waved goodbye to his stint as 36th president of the United States.
Johnson, clearly weary from civil disorders at home and the Vietnam war abroad, looked happier than any human being had a right to be. Mfume didn't look as happy as Johnson did nearly 36 years ago, just darned close.
And it wasn't the weight of civil disorders or a foreign war being lifted from his shoulders that brightened Mfume's face, but the thought of the time he'll be able to spend with his youngest son, now 14.
"I don't want to miss any more basketball games," Mfume said. "I don't want to miss any more PTA meetings."
Mfume called it quits yesterday after nearly nine years of leading the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His last day will be Jan. 1. He leaves behind, Mfume told reporters, an organization that has a budget surplus and some $15 million in cash reserves. That's quite a change from the NAACP that Mfume took over, which was, in his words, "mired in debt and steeped in doubt."
For some news media representatives present, the NAACP is still "steeped in doubt." It's not because the organization is in the red financially. The cloud that now hovers over the NAACP concerns the organization's nonpartisanship - or allegations that there's a lack of it - and a subsequent Internal Revenue Service audit ordered by the Bush administration.
One reporter asked if Mfume and NAACP board Chairman Julian Bond - who sat with four other board members to Mfume's left as the departing president delivered his farewell remarks - had allowed the organization to become too partisan.
"I don't think so," answered Bond, whose speech at the NAACP's annual convention in Philadelphia this year inspired the audit. "I don't think there was anything in my remarks in Philadelphia that crossed the line. If criticizing the president warranted an IRS audit, 55 million Americans would now be under audit."
That sounds like the same ducking, bobbing, weaving and slipping of punches about NAACP "nonpartisanship" that Bond and other organization leaders have done for years. Unfortunately, it's the kind of ducking, bobbing, weaving and slipping of punches more akin to that done by Chuck "The Bayonne Bleeder" Wepner than Muhammad Ali.
Both Bond and Mfume referred to the NAACP's history during the news conference. It's time they were reminded of a little more of that history.
Bond said NAACP leaders still hope to meet with President Bush, as they have with every president from Warren G. Harding through Bill Clinton. But perhaps Bond can identify the time and place where any NAACP leader has compared a sitting president's political party to a group of terrorists and murderers, as Bond did when he chided Bush for giving appointments to Republicans from "the Taliban wing of American politics."
Oh, leaders from 1913 through 1921, when President Wilson held office, could have justifiably called Democrats the party of the Ku Klux Klan. Wilson kicked black people out of federal jobs and praised The Birth of a Nation - which was essentially a KKK recruitment film. The organization's leaders could have made the same claim during the years 1933 through 1953, when Democrats were in the White House and rabid Southern segregationists had a hammerlock on the party.
NAACP leaders could have said those things, but they didn't because they knew there was a line that couldn't be crossed if they still wanted access to the president of the United States. Malcolm X could (wrongly) call President Kennedy "that Ku Klux Klan" president, but Roy Wilkins - who held the position Mfume does now - couldn't.
Bond has in essence called Bush the equivalent of a "Ku Klux Klan" president. Not once, but several times. Mfume has, by contrast, been the voice of moderation and reason in the NAACP. That voice will be missed.
It's too bad Bond's voice isn't going with it.