The most common media hit on George Bush the Elder after his 1988 campaign was the claim that he won by scaring whites about blacks, and the GOP used "code words" to achieve a dirty victory.
So it wasn't altogether surprising when George Bush the Sequel accepted an invitation to speak at the convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Liberal media types were easily mollified, with big stars like Dan Rather touting how Bush was running much smarter than Bob Dole, who was punished by the media for rejecting the NAACP invitation as a "setup."
Bush's cross-ideological strategy may have succeeded in some meaningful amount of media fang retraction. It may have been the virtuous thing to do. But was it smart politics?
It was, to my way of thinking, a great opportunity lost. Following the ABC's of politics, the Bush camp had to know that the main media soundbite from his speech would be his Clintonian apology that "the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln." Sure enough, the press jumped all over it, dutifully reporting that this individual Republican is different from them. Score a (perhaps only momentary) point for W. at the expense of the Republican Party, with shades of Clinton's 1996 triangulation strategy. Like Clinton, he is counting on blind loyalty in the pursuit of victory to supersede the affront.
It also reminds us of the infamous Al Gore-Jack Kemp vice presidential debate in 1996, when Gore congratulated Kemp for being a "lonely voice" in the Republican Party that cared about black issues. Kemp responded not by defending his party's honor on racial issues, but by bloviating about himself. Bush scored points for "moving toward the center," and the only people who suffer are those Republicans who apparently have been racists for the last 35 years.
Like Kemp, Bush did not deem it necessary to point out the opposition's position on racial politics - to remind the NAACP the Democratic Party they are so thoroughly wrapped around is the party of Stephen Douglas, and very much lived up to the mantle of Stephen Douglas for many years. It was Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen who broke the Democrat filibuster of the Civil Act of 1964, and it was Republican votes that enacted both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in greater numbers than Democrats.
By attending the NAACP convention, Bush also gave credence to the media view that the NAACP is the sole representative of the political views of black Americans, which is a slap at Clarence Thomas and all other black conservatives who've been under assault as insufficiently black from the supposed saints of the so-called "civil rights movement."
Indeed, the NAACP has been guilty of shockingly divisive racial nastiness of the NAACP in its own right. NAACP leader Julian Bond has charged that Republican congressional leaders are "become the running dogs of the wacky radical right" and are contributing to a situation where "white supremacy" is "everywhere in America."
Then there was Bond's inflammatory proclamation on CNN that he "wholeheartedly believes" Camille Cosby's charge that "America taught our son's killer to hate African-Americans," which smears more than Republicans. There's Bond's declaration that the Reagan presidency marked a time when the Republicans were "a crazed swarm of right-wing locusts" waging an "assault on the rule of law" intended "to subvert, ignore, defy and destroy the laws that require an America which is bias-free." We're "crazed locusts"?
Then there's the NAACP's candidate, Al Gore, who tells black audience the "joke" that "the critics of affirmative action talk about a colorblind society...They use colorblind the way duck hunters use their duck blind. They hide behind it and hope the ducks won't figure out what they're up to." Conservatives want to shoot blacks like ducks?
George W. Bush didn't object to any of these uncivil statements because of a heartfelt desire to rise above the ugliness of the past, and rightfully so. So how can he succeed both politically and philosophically with this third-rail issue?
There was a better soundbite available. "The party of Lincoln had not always carried the mantle of Lincoln. I'm here to confess that openly and honestly. But I'm also here to challenge you to do likewise, to confess your sins of dividing black from white for political gain. For only when we are honest with ourselves, and acknowledge the humanity of our opponents, can we move forward together toward a solution."
With that, George W. might have launched the national conversation the country needs to have.