President Bush’s speech last Friday before the National Urban League was the best speech given before a predominately black audience by either a president or major presidential candidate in at least 40 years.
It was the best not because of any soaring rhetorical flourishes, timeless lines, or stirring delivery (although the president–despite a sometimes hurried cadence–was clearly and passionately on his game) but because it was unabashedly conservative and refreshingly devoid of the peculiar mix of paternalism, supplication, and pandering found in almost all speeches by politicians to black crowds.
Yes, the president did make a few appeals specifically tailored to the assemblage. But he did so without deviating from his established principles and policies or reciting a list of government initiatives obsequiously designed to address stereotypically “black” concerns.
Many politicians are overcome by the urge to pander to black audiences by displaying their liberal bona fides, hoping that this will help them transcend any reservations regarding their commitment or sincerity. The president easily could’ve been tempted to succumb to such an urge. Just consider what he was up against: This was an audience that had been told repeatedly that George W. Bush is the worst president in U.S. history. They’ve been told that he was somehow responsible for the dragging death of James Byrd. They’ve been assured that the Republican party is intrinsically racist. They’ve heard the radio ads claiming that a vote for a Republican is a vote for another black church being burned; for another black man getting lynched. They’ve been instructed that Bush is going to let the Voting Rights Act expire, preventing blacks from voting.
And they’ve been told these kinds of things not by fringe political players but by high-profile officials in prominent organizations. For example, NAACP president Kweisi Mfume has declared, “We have a president that’s prepared to take us back to the days of Jim Crow segregation and dominance.” NAACP Chairman Julian Bond contended that “[President Bush] has appeased the wretched appetites of the extreme right wing. And has chosen Cabinet officials [Powell, Paige, Jackson?] whose devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection…their idea of reparations is to give the war criminal Jefferson Davis a pardon. Their idea of equal rights is the American flag and Confederate swastika flying side by side.” It’s not surprising, then, that a recent poll shows that 85 percent of blacks believe George Bush “stole” the 2000 election.
Considering the above, many politicians, just to get a fair hearing, probably would’ve made the traditional concessions to the grievance-victimhood mindset or taken the opportunity to play Santa Claus with the public treasury.
Not George W. Bush. He spoke about the need for more black entrepreneurship and home ownership (in contrast to Senator John Kerry who, while speaking to the same organization the previous day, stressed the need for more Section 8 funding) and outlined his policies designed for greater black participation in the “ownership society.” He repudiated high taxes, more government spending, increased regulation, and frivolous lawsuits. He emphasized educational accountability, high standards, school choice, and local control of schools. He defended the culture of life and the institutions of marriage and the family. And he displayed his familiar resolve regarding the war on terror.
President Bush then reminded the crowd that the upper echelons of his administration, the most diverse in history, was an affirmation of meritocracy and a rebuke to the symbolism and tokenism that has previously relegated blacks almost exclusively to departmental ghettoes: Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Secretary of Housing Alphonso Jackson, FCC Chair Michael Powell, General Services Administration head Steve Perry, Office of Personnel Management chief Kay James–superstars all–just to name a few.
There was one point in the speech at which some conservatives might have winced–an opportunity seemingly missed. Near the end, after the president had asked those in attendance for their votes, he acknowledged “I know, I know, the Republican party has a lot of work to do. I understand that.” Then, to much laughter, he looked at Jesse Jackson and added, “You didn’t need to nod your head that hard, Jesse.”
The party of Lincoln does indeed have a lot of work to do. But no doubt many would’ve liked to have seen the president remind Rev. Jackson that the Republican party isn’t the party that worked against the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments; it isn’t the party that institutionalized segregation; it didn’t establish poll taxes and literacy tests to keep blacks from voting; it didn’t enact Jim Crow laws or fight against anti-lynching legislation; it hasn’t resisted helping black kids escape failing schools; and it hasn’t claimed that shoveling trillions of dollars into ineffective government programs is the best evidence of a commitment to black advancement.
But it was precisely at this point that the president’s speech hit its highest notes. He pointedly asked the crowd whether “the Democrat party take[s] the African-American vote for granted?” He went on to ask whether it’s “a good thing for the African-American community to be represented mainly by one political party? How is it possible to gain political leverage if one party is never forced to compete [for the black vote]? Have the traditional solutions of the Democrat party served the African-American community?”
These are questions no previous president or presidential candidate has asked. They deserve answers. The debate leading to the answers will be good for blacks and good for America.
–Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.