August 20, 2004

Commentary:

‘What the Heck, it’s Election Season’

Bush at UNITY

By SR
YO! Youth Outlook

Aug 16, 2004--I took a red-eye flight to Washington D.C. a few weeks ago during the “orange” terrorist threat level to witness President George W. Bush in action, and to attend the 2004 UNITY Convention – the largest gathering of minority journalists in the country. What can I say? It was pure comedy.

From the young folks kickin’ it on the late night tip in the northwest part of town near Howard University, to the vendors at the Eastern Market in southwest D.C., to the folks on the streets in Adam’s Morgan, a popular tourist section full of clubs and restaurants, the young folks I hung out with were up on game when it came to politics. But life in the nation’s capital had many choosing community work over street protest, the most common political practice in good ol’ San Francisco.

Only about a dozen protesters showed up outside the new Convention Center in downtown D.C as President Bush spoke on a sunny Friday morning at the UNITY Convention, with more than 7,000 minority journalists attending the week-long conference. What were the socially conscious young folks I met during my trip doing that summer day? Working with kids, people in their communities, or at nonprofits. Here’s what the always entertaining current prez had to say.

Bush on the State of Minorities

“I believe it’s more important to be a doer than a talker,” said President Bush to a crowd of minority journalists inside a large conference room at the Convention Center, before launching into a speech about how his administration has worked to improve the condition of minorities in America.

At the beginning of his speech, Bush looked up after stumbling over the words on the podium in front of him and said, “Look it, you can’t read a newspaper if you can’t read,” before insisting that during his presidency, learning in schools has improved. But he admitted a literacy gap among minorities remains. So what was the solution he proposed regarding the failure of American public schools? Give low-income students scholarships (or vouchers) to enroll in better schools, he said.

“There’s more to do,” Bush said. Indeed. Washington still only provides about seven cents of every dollar spent on education. Students are now able to transfer out of failing schools to other public schools, but the $26 billion education bill Bush signed a few years ago has not helped solve the inequities between rich and poor schools. And now, every kid must be tested in reading and math every year between third and eighth grade, as a “measure” of their progress.

Bush discussed minority homeowners and health care reform before touching on racial diversity – as Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry had in his speech at UNITY the day before (which I missed). But instead of discussing topics regarding race, Bush had jokes. “The people who walk into the Oval Office and say, ‘Mr. President, you’re not looking so good today,’ they’re diverse,” Bush said with a chuckle, before listing the minorities in his cabinet.

Through most of his speech, Bush’s words drew applause, snickers and laughter (with him and at him) from the audience, which was made up mostly of journalists and some well-known politicians, like Reverend Jesse Jackson. But it wasn’t until Bush talked about how financial support of “faith-based programs” does not conflict with the separation of church and state that an audience member stood up in anger. “Shame on you,” yelled a man with glasses and a yellow notepad. “You’re a liar.”

The man was escorted quietly out of the room, as Bush continued, saying, “I know we can save America one heart, one soul, one conscience at a time,” regarding the success of faith-based programs, which the Bush administration awarded more than $1 billion in taxpayer’s funding in 2002.

Bush went on to discuss the aftermath of September 11th, and the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Freedom is the almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world,” Bush said, after discussing the need to free the world of tyrannical dictators such as Saddam Hussein. “We’re the home of liberty,” Bush said, after stating that 8 million people in Afghanistan are registered to vote – with no mention that bin Laden has eluded capture, and war continues to rage in the country.

“I’m off to shake a few hands in New Hampshire,” said Bush with a wide grin, at the end of his speech. “But what the heck, it’s the season, isn’t it?”

Q&A with Minority Journalists

After Bush’s speech, a journalist from each of the four organizations hosting the UNITY Convention asked him two questions. Here are some of the gems.

Q: Julie Chen from CBS News, a member of the National Association of Asian Journalists, asked about the arrest and detention of Arabs and Muslims, and the suggestion that internment camps should be brought back. “How do we balance the need to pursue and detain some individuals…while at the same time keeping innocent people from being painted by the broad brush of suspicion?”

A: “First, we don’t need intern camps. I mean, forget it,” Bush said. Some audience members clapped, others snickered. Bush continued by saying that “people are innocent until judged guilty,” law enforcement should “determine guilt or innocence,” and right now is a “dangerous time.” He closed with: “Who in the heck wants to be a war President? I don’t, but this is what came our way.”

Q: Mark Trahant of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a member of the National Association of Native American Journalists, asked, “What do you think tribal sovereignty means in the 21st century, and how do we resolve conflicts between tribes and the federal and the state governments?”

A: “Tribal sovereignty means that, it’s sovereign. You’ve been given sovereignty, and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity. Therefore, the relationship between the federal government and tribes is between sovereign entities,” Bush said. He added that the federal government “has got a responsibility on matters like education and security to help.”

Q: Ray Suarez of The News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, asked, “I’d like to hear your own view about when, and if, race and ethnicity are admissible as factors for consideration both in college admissions and in hiring in the workplace?”

A: “I agreed with the Court in saying that we ought to reject quotas,” Bush said, referring to the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling against quotas at the University of Michigan. He said a “race-neutral” admissions policy should be tried, but added that if that does not work, “race ought to be a factor.”

Q: Roland Martin of the Chicago Defender, a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, said, “In 2000, an estimated 2 million people – half African American – had their votes discounted, from Florida to Cook County, Illinois to other cities.” Martin asked, regarding the upcoming elections, “Are you going to order Attorney General John Ashcroft to send federal election monitors to Florida and other southern states? And in this age of new constitutional amendments, will you endorse a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every American the right to vote in federal elections?”

A: “First of all, look, I can understand why African Americans, in particular, are worried about being able to vote, since the vote had been denied for so long in the South,” Bush said. He told the crowd: “Just don’t focus on Florida, now, I’ve talked to the governor down there to make sure it works.” When Martin pressed him to consider a constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to vote to all Americans, Bush responded: “I’ll consider it.”

Q: Martin also asked Bush about the practice of legacy in college admissions, stating, “I’ve never heard you speak against legacy…If you say it’s a matter of merit, and not race, shouldn’t colleges also get rid of legacy? Because that’s not based upon merit, that’s based upon if my daddy or my granddaddy went to my college.”

A: “I thought you were referring to my legacy,” Bush joked, as some audience members laughed. “In my case, I had to knock on a lot of doors to follow the old man’s footsteps,” he continued, as some audience members gasped in response. Bush said he is opposed to “special treatment,” including legacy. Regarding affirmative action, Bush ended the Q&A with: “I support colleges affirmatively taking action to get more minorities in their school,” drawing some snickers and laughter.

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