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Jewish World Review July 11, 2001 / 20 Tamuz 5761

Philip Terzian

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Julian Bond speaks out -- GEORGE W. BUSH'S call to civility in public life got a swift kick in the teeth from the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Meeting in New Orleans this week, the NAACP had extended an invitation to Mr. Bush to speak to its convention -- he addressed it last year while running for president -- but this time he opted to send a videotape instead. The president described his education reform plan, spoke about the two black members of his cabinet (Colin Powell, Rodney Paige) and exhorted the delegates to support his proposal to allow churches to deliver federally-funded social services, the so-called faith-based initiative.

"There are other ways my agenda will help ensure that the American Dream touches every willing heart," he said, repeating a now-familiar Bush refrain. "From creating opportunities for affordable housing and health care to encouraging savings and reducing taxes on working people.

"But throughout," he concluded, "my agenda is laced with some common themes: Trusting the people, empowering communities and charities, and creating one nation of justice and equality."

Now, you can parse a politician's words any way you like, but my general assumption is that people say what they mean. And if George W. Bush felt otherwise, he would have told the delegates so, or would have declined to address them at all. But he chose to speak to the convention, and soon reaped his reward.

Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, stood before the delegates the other evening and, speaking generally about the Bush administration, declared that the president "has selected nominees from the Taliban wing of American politics, appeased the wretched appetites of the extreme right wing, and chosen cabinet officials whose devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection."

Chairman Bond seems especially taken by the line about dogs and the Confederacy; he has used it before. But it is worth examining his remarks in full. The Taliban, it will be recalled, is the party that rules Afghanistan through terror, and is famous for suppressing women's rights and harboring guerrillas like Osama Bin Laden. Chairman Bond suggests that those Americans who cast their ballots for George W. Bush last November -- half the voting population -- are the local equivalent of an Islamic terrorist movement.

To this is added the presumption that the conservative wing of the Republican Party has no legitimate interests in American political life, only "wretched appetites" which must be "appeased." Chairman Bond is careful to choose appropriate adjectives: It is not the right wing to which Mr. Bush has appealed, but the "extreme right wing" for which, presumably, there is no left-wing equivalent.

It is no great surprise that the White House responded with injured dignity: "I think ... it's unfortunate," said the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, "and another reminder of why everybody needs to work together to change the tone" in Washington. Mr. Bush, it would seem, is determined to maintain the semblance of civility, and for that he deserves credit.

Yet Julian Bond's rhetoric cannot be so lightly dismissed. It is one thing to differ on the mission of government, or disagree on means to achieve a common end. But likening opponents to murderers and tyrants, or scorning intentions with excessive abuse, reduces public life to a poisonous well.

The NAACP is habitually described in the press as "the venerable civil rights organization." But at 95 years old, venerability is just about all it has going. Having fallen from the heights of the late Walter White and Roy Wilkins in the past, and into the clutches of a confidence man (Benjamin Chavis) during the past decade, its membership has plummeted along with its influence. Largely devoid of substance in its work, it relies on celebrities (Myrlie Evers, Julian Bond) to raise corporate money, and serves as a vehicle for mobile politicians (Kweise Mfume) whose primary interest is garnering attention.

Chairman Bond's language is probably a reflection of the larger problem besetting the old civil rights movement: Like the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, it is preoccupied with battles lost and won long before, and fortified, to some degree, by bile and resentment. At a time in American history when the prospects for black people are increasingly bright, and progress is measured in levels of prosperity, the anger that animates the NAACP -- invective as a substitute for reasoned debate -- is nearly as irrelevant as it is dangerously corrosive.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal