WASHINGTON – President Bush urged the Senate to pass the Voting Rights Act in the first speech of his presidency to the NAACP on Thursday. He said he would sign the act without any amendments.
The Senate later approved the bill 98-0. The House passed it last week.
Bush's speech came on the last day of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's national convention. Bush addressed the sometimes rocky relationship he has had with the organization,calling for a new beginning of “common purpose” committed to civil rights.
“I understand that racism still lingers in America. It's a lot easier to change a law than to change a human heart,” he said. Bush was joined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and chief political adviser Karl Rove.
Bush touched on his administration's work to ensure education,property ownership and health care to all Americans. In an anecdote about unity,Bush recalled a sermon he heard in Houston that compared a fragmented society to a crack on a wall that keeps reappearing after numerous attempts to patch it up.
“In order to solve the cracks on the wall,you have to fix the foundation,” Bush recalled. “What I want to do is work with the NAACP to help fix the foundations of our society. We want strong families. We want to help people who need help.”
Bush spoke about HIV in the U.S. He cited its prominence among black women and urged reauthorization of the Ryan White Act,which provides medications and other health care for those living with HIV/AIDS.
“And when we see the scourge of HIV/AIDS ravaging communities at home and abroad,we must not avert our eyes,” he said.
Bush acknowledged tensions between the Republican Party and black voters.
“I understand a lot of African Americans distrust my political party,” he said. “I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historical ties with the African-American community. For too long my party wrote off the African-American vote,and many African-Americans wrote off my party.”
Bush said he hoped the two groups could work together,seeing things “bigger than politics” for the nation's betterment.
Throughout the speech the president received applause. The audience was loud with support when he spoke about renewing the Voting Rights Act and about his administration's 30 percent funding increase for historically black colleges.
He was met with boos and catcalls when he spoke about the new Medicare drug program,but thanked the NAACP for its effort in signing people up for the program. Toward the end of his speech,two protesters shouted remarks about Dick Cheney and were escorted out by ushers.
Shirley Doris Belle,one of several thousand spectators,enjoyed his speech.
“It hit all the points that truly interested us. It's wonderful that he will sign the Voting Rights Act with no amendments,which is exactly what we were hoping for,” said Belle,president of the Bayonne Branch of the NAACP in New Jersey.
Reggie Whitehead,president of the NAACP Santa Fe branch in New Mexico,said the speech was successful,but lacked some details.
“I believe he dodged the issue of immigration. We needed to hear more about how he plans to deal with it,” Whitehead said.
After years of declining to address the convention,Bush said he and new NAACP President Bruce Gordon have “a good working relationship.”
“Bruce is a polite guy,” Bush said. “I thought what he was going to say,‘It's about time you showed up.' And,I'm glad I did.”