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Black Republicans are roiling with anger and incomprehension after a meeting between George W. Bush and Rev. Jesse Jackson that followed the president’s address to the National Urban League in Pittsburgh.
“We are outraged that the people around the president would do such a thing,” said Niger Innis, spokesman for the Congress on Racial Equality, or CORE. “This amounts to aiding and abetting a hustler who has been exposed and is a total repudiation of people like my father, Roy Innis, who have been fighting for a positive cause for years.”
The 15-minute closed-door meeting Monday also was attended by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and former Clinton administration Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater.
Sources familiar with the meeting say it was set up by White House political-strategy director Karl Rove, with no consultation with black conservatives or the Republican National Committee.
“Such meetings wouldn’t have been coordinated with the RNC,” an RNC official said. “But it was well-known that the meeting with Jackson was going to take place.”
RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie was standing behind the president when he was whisked away by the Secret Service for the private meeting with Jackson, a knowledgeable source tells Insight. “[Gillespie] was stunned when he learned what was going on.”
Other sources dispute this account and say the White House was blindsided by Cummings, who requested a private audience to talk to the president about Liberia. “Out of respect for Cummings as the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bush agreed to meet with him. It was someone else who suggested to Cummings that he bring Jackson,” one source told Insight.
Rove also is said to have personally approved sending Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell to address a Jackson conference on Wall Street on Jan. 16. Republican Party insiders tell Insight that Rove initially had wanted to send Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez as well, but nixed the idea after howls of protest from black Republicans.
No Democrat lashed out more viciously at Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign than Jackson. He frequently blamed Bush for the “lynching” of James Byrd Jr., a black man from Jasper, Texas, who was chained behind a car and dragged to his death in a racially motivated incident.
And during the Florida recount, Jackson made false claims that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had ordered the state police to intimidate black voters.
As the Supreme Court was hearing final oral arguments in Bush v. Gore on Dec. 12, 2000, Jackson told reporters, “We will take to the streets right now. We will delegitimize Bush, discredit him, do whatever it takes, but never accept him.”
At one point, Jackson warned that a Bush victory would lead to violence in the streets.
The president has yet to have a one-on-one meeting with CORE National Chairman Roy Innis or with any other black conservative leaders.
“This should have happened a long time ago,” Niger Innis tells Insight. “This meeting with Jackson undermines the cause of black Republicans and black conservatives. It undermines our efforts to bring more blacks into the party to increase the abysmal 9 percent vote the president got from the black community in 2000.”
Innis called on the White House to set up “a series of private meetings with Roy Innis and other conservative black leaders to counter the damage done” from the meeting with Jackson.
“If anything, Jesse Jackson, once certified by the president, will go out and stab the president in the back,” Innis said. “He will go out and take black voters away from Bush next year.”
A top black Republican Party insider, who asked not to be named, believes Bush addressed the Urban League on the mistaken belief that it would help him win support from black voters in next year’s election.
“The president has about as much chance of getting votes from the Urban League as he does from convicted felons at Folsom Prison,” he said.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church plans to hold a major event in Dallas next week that is expected to draw an estimated 10,000 women involved in missionary work.
“Here’s a group that would be sympathetic to the president, especially to his faith-based initiatives,” this insider said. “They asked the president to give a speech, but haven’t heard one word back.”
After Bush’s speech to the Urban League, Democratic presidential contender Harold Dean addressed the group and mocked the president’s outreach effort.
“The president played the race card and he had the nerve to come before the National Urban League and ask for your help and your support,” Dean was quoted as saying by the Washington Times.
Instead of the polite applause reserved for the president, Dean’s remarks were greeted with a standing ovation.
Alex St. James of the African-American Legislative Council in Washington said he was “utterly shocked” to hear of the Bush-Jackson meeting.
“This is a slap in the face of black Republicans,” he said. “Jackson has called the president all kinds of names. You don’t sit down with your enemy if he doesn’t first make amends. Blacks will see this as the president trying to pander to the black vote.”
But not all black conservative leaders are angry. Kevin Martin, who as head of Project 21 in Washington had helped convince NASCAR to stop its financial support of Jackson and his groups, thought Bush had gotten the better of Jackson.
“If he’d refused to meet Jackson, then all the television networks would have put Jesse on TV to talk about the snub,” Martin said. “As it was, Bush came away from this meeting the bigger man. He played Jackson like the fiddle that he was. It was a good political move.”
Conservatives, he argued, need to take a longer view of meetings such as this.
“What this president has done is to sideline the far-left NAACP, which is still suffering from the reign of terror of Julian Bond, in favor of the more moderate National Urban League and others,” Martin said. “Fifteen minutes of the president’s time with Jackson in the context of national politics is nothing. If you want to get this president re-elected, you take away the temper-tantrum toys from the likes of Jesse Jackson.”
During the meeting, Jackson said he encouraged Bush to intervene in the civil war in Liberia, according to the Washington Times. The White House did not allow Jackson or Cummings to appear with the president for a photo opportunity.
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Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.