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Inside Politics

President Bush meets with outgoing NAACP head

Mfume: "Very frank and very open dialogue"

Kweisi Mfume speaks to reporters after meeting with the president on Tuesday.
Minority Groups
Kweisi Mfume

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Kweisi Mfume, outgoing head of the NAACP, said Tuesday he had a "man-to-man" meeting with President Bush during which they talked about health care, education reform, Social Security and other issues.

"He was genuinely interested in what I had to say," Mfume told reporters outside the White House. "So I'm hoping that at least, because it was a very frank and a very open dialogue, that it has served some purpose."

He said that because of Tuesday's attack on a U.S. military mess tent in Iraq, that killed at least 24 people, he offered to delay the meeting, but the president, although distraught, wanted to go ahead.

"I should point out that this does not constitute an official meeting with the NAACP," said Mfume, whose resignation as president and CEO of the NAACP is effective December 31. "I do hope, however, that it begins the process for future dialogue with the NAACP."

Bush sat down with Mfume in an effort to make amends, the NAACP and a senior administration official said.

Mfume said the president was interested in his views on a variety of subjects, but particularly issues involving race.

While he admitted he has some "real differences" with the president, Mfume appeared encouraged and said the president was "very concerned that some of his policies may have been misinterpreted."

Karl Rove, the president's chief political advisor, was also at the meeting.

President Bush is willing to work in a "bipartisan way" on many issues, the senior administration official said before the meeting.

"The president said after the election he would meet with his detractors and supporters," the official said. "We need to address these [issues] together, including civil rights and other issues related to making this a colorblind society."

The relationship between Bush and the country's oldest civil rights organization grew tense during the presidential campaign, after criticism from the chairman of the NAACP's board of directors, Julian Bond. He and other NAACP members criticized the president for his social and economic policies, and for rebuffing the organization's repeated offers to meet.

Bush has declined to speak at the NAACP's annual conventions for the past four years. The White House cited a scheduling conflict as the reason for the president's absence this year. In July, he called his relationship with the NAACP "basically non-existent."

Mfume said Tuesday that the president explained in the meeting that he did not attend the convention because Bush was concerned with protecting the office of president from any public humiliation.

Bond and Mfume have differed over the direction the civil rights organization should take.

Mfume, 56, took over the NAACP in 1996 and was credited with turning around the civil rights organization after turbulent times in the early 1990s. At a news conference announcing his resignation, Mfume said he will continue "for the next five or six months" to serve as a consultant to the group, of which general counsel Dennis Hayes will be acting president and CEO.

Mfume is rumored to have ambitions to run for governor or senator of Maryland. He ran for Congress in 1986 and won easily, holding his seat until he took over the NAACP. While in Congress, he consistently advocated civil rights and minority business legislation and was a co-sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

He told CNN two weeks ago: "I don't know what I'm going to do. You know, Paul Sarbanes [D-Maryland] is a dear friend of mine. He and his wife, Christine, I've known for years. I support him. I have supported him for the last three decades.

"I don't know what he is going to do. And I think what he is going to do has to be his decision and done in his own way. And once he makes that decision, then I will make one."

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.

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