WASHINGTON -- The White House announced yesterday that President Bush plans to speak to the NAACP for the first time since he took office, after rejecting the civil rights group's invitations for five straight years.
Tony Snow, White House spokesman, said Bush had decided to speak to the group tomorrow because of ``a moment of opportunity" for the president to tout his civil rights record and to mend fences.
``He has an important role to play, not only in making the case for civil rights, but maybe more importantly, the case for unity," Snow said. ``Because as long as we have a nation that's in any way divided along racial lines, or where politics become a source of division rather [than] one of civil debate and trying to perfect the democracy, that's a problem."
Bush made his decision in a critical midterm election year. Republicans have voiced fear that they will lose control of Congress and Bush has been working to get more votes for the GOP. Bush received just 11 percent of the black vote in the 2004 election.
The NAACP's president, Bruce S. Gordon, said he was glad that Bush planned to speak.
Gordon cited especially a renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act still before the Senate. ``This is a great opportunity for the president to express his commitment for voting-rights reauthorization," Gordon said.
Every president for several decades has spoken to the group. Bush had been the exception.
The convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People draws thousands of people, and Bush has been invited to speak every year since he became president. Each year he has declined, citing a busy schedule, but there is also a history of bad blood between Bush and the group.
In the 2000 presidential campaign, the NAACP's National Voter Fund ran a television advertisement against Bush. The ad featured a daughter of James Byrd, a black man who was dragged to death . It said Bush refused her pleas for a hate-crime law when he was governor of Texas.
Then, just before the 2004 election, the Internal Revenue Service began looking into the NAACP's tax-exempt status after a speech by the NAACP chairman, Julian Bond, that was largely critical of Bush's policies. Political campaigning is prohibited under the NAACP's tax-exempt status, but the group said the audit amounted to a political smear campaign.