WASHINGTON, July 8 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush on Monday defended his decision not to attend the NAACP's 93rd annual convention being held in Texas this week during an afternoon news conference with White House reporters.
The president was in the midst of answering questions, when Dallas Morning News reporter Bob Hillman asked the president to respond to criticism that he has not attended a NAACP convention since his election and that his administration's civil rights record was not considered stellar.
Bush paused briefly and with a slight smile, answered Hillman's question.
"Let's see. There I was, sitting around the table with foreign leaders, looking at Colin Powell and Condi Rice. Yeah," Bush said.
Hillary Shelton, director of the NAACP's legislative office in Washington, reacted with some surprise.
"He said that?" said Shelton from the group's convention in Houston.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice are two of the highest-ranking blacks in Bush's administration along with U.S. Department of Education Secretary Rod Paige.
Some of the criticism that hurled at Bush upon his decision to appoint Rice and Powell was that they would be token minorities who would have no real power, but that assertion was quickly discounted with intimate consultation with Bush on all aspects of foreign affairs, particularly that involving the escalating crisis in the Middle East.
Shelton told United Press International that while his organization celebrates Rice and Powell's role in the administration, it recognizes that they have no impact on domestic policy important to blacks.
"They are both involved in international issues which means that at best they are involved in human rights issues abroad. Civil rights issues are always handled quite differently. Civil rights issues are internal, domestic policy, and neither Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell helped author, construct or craft domestic policy," Shelton said. "It misses the point to point to your international policy people when you're talking about domestic policy concerns."
Shelton called it "outrageous" that Bush has refused to address the organization that has branches in every state in the union and a European delegation representing blacks living in countries around the world.
"For him not to be willing to dialogue with the NAACP is rather outrageous," said Shelton. "When you have a system in place, a clear voice of the concerns of a particular community that we know have disproportionate problems in this country ... health care disparity, education, home ownership that he has a lot of control over. To be unwilling to come and address the NAACP is outrageous."
Bush's comments come as he has been trying to shore up support in the black community where he netted less than 9 percent of the vote during the 2000 presidential election. Bush lost the popular vote to Democratic candidate Al Gore, but won the Electoral College after an exhaustive 36-day election contest that landed before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Shelton also pointed to Bush's promises to address the issue of racial profiling and hate crimes have also fallen by the wayside, and that he has taken to appointing "right-wing extremist judges" to the bench.
"He does have a very troubling record on civil rights," Shelton said of Bush.
Bush came under fire during the NAACP convention where he was accused of ignoring the concerns of blacks and supporting the right wing of the Republican Party. NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond criticized Bush during his speech before the convention on Sunday.
"We have a president who owes his election more to a dynasty than to a democracy," Bond said. "When he spoke to our convention in Baltimore in 2000, he promised to enforce the civil rights laws. We knew he was in the oil business -- we just didn't know it was snake oil."
Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson also voiced his dismay with Bush.
"We have a government that is enfranchised by miscounted or uncounted votes. Even though it lost the election, it operates as if it has a mandate to take our rights," Jackson said during the convention on Monday.
In September, the NAACP is planning a "legislative mobilization" with members of the organization converging on Capitol Hill and the White House to urge passage of legislation such has election reform that has been lingering in congressional committees.