AT AN EVENT in North Carolina to mark Black History Month last February, Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP, unleashed a blistering attack on the Bush administration and the Republican Party. Among other discourtesies, he compared President George W. Bush's judicial appointees to the Taliban and described former Attorney General John Ashcroft, not for the first time, as "J. Edgar Ashcroft."
"The Republican Party," Bond was reported as saying, "would have the American flag and the swastika flying side by side." (According to other reports, Bond said that the GOP's "idea of equal rights is the American flag and the Confederate swastika flying side-by-side.")
Such partisan bigotry from the chairman of a supposedly nonpartisan organization makes it easy to understand why for five years Bush refused to attend the NAACP's annual conventions. More of a mystery is why he changed his mind this year -- and why, rather than attempt to refute Bond's venomous caricature of his party, he seemed to accept it.
"I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party," Bush said (to shouts of "Yes!" and applause from the audience, according to the White House transcript). "I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historic ties with the African-American community. For too long my party wrote off the African-American vote, and many African-Americans wrote off the Republican Party."
Republicans often take this rueful tone when talking about their party in the context of race. Democrats, who routinely get 85 percent or more of the black vote, never do. But the Republican rue isn't justified by the facts. Neither is the willingness of black voters to be taken for granted by Democrats.
Look around. Black candidates are serious contenders for governor in three states this year, and two of them -- Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania and Kenneth Blackwell in Ohio -- are Republicans. The third, Democrat Deval Patrick, is running in Massachusetts, a quintessentially blue state that has managed to elect only one African-American to statewide office in its entire history: former US Senator Edward Brooke -- a Republican.
Bush may have given short shrift to the NAACP for several years, but from his first day in office he has surrounded himself with a record number of senior black policy makers. Among them have been the nation's first black secretary of state, Colin Powell -- and its second, Condoleezza Rice.
Of course the Republican Party's record on race is not without its blemishes. For example, at a 100th birthday party for Strom Thurmond in 2002, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi praised the former Dixiecrat's segregationist 1948 campaign for president. Republicans were scandalized and forced Lott to resign as Senate majority leader.
Democrats, by contrast, have never moved to purge Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a former Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan who wrote in 1947 that he would never agree to fight "with a Negro by my side" and would "rather . . . die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels." Byrd filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and is the only senator to have voted against both of the black justices named to the Supreme Court -- the liberal Thurgood Marshall and the conservative Clarence Thomas. While Byrd has said his racism is a thing of the past, that didn't stop him from using the N-word twice in an interview on national TV in 2001. Remarkably, none of this has harmed Byrd's standing within the Democratic Party, nor the party's standing among black voters.
Bond may not share Republican principles or legislative priorities, but for him to cast the GOP as the party of fascism and racism is beyond surreal. After all, it was the Democratic Party that vehemently defended slavery, the Democratic Party that supported the Dred Scott decision, and the Democratic Party that opposed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. It was Democrats who founded the Ku Klux Klan, Democrats who repeatedly blocked anti-lynching bills, and Democrats who enacted Jim Crow segregation across the South.
Everyone knows that it was a 19th-century Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation. But how many know that it was a 20th-century Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, who segregated the federal government, appointed unabashed racists to his Cabinet, and endorsed "The Birth of a Nation," D.W. Griffith's celluloid celebration of the Klan?
Eventually -- happily -- the Democratic Party outgrew Wilson's racism. By 1964 a majority of congressional Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act -- as did an even larger majority of congressional Republicans.
Today's Democratic Party is nothing like the racist stronghold it used to be; anyone who claimed otherwise would be trafficking in foul demagoguery. That is just what Bond traffics in when he speaks with equal foulness about today's Republican Party. The NAACP is better than that, and perhaps Bush should have said so.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)