Emil Guillermo, Special to SF Gate
Washington, DC -- President Bush is for "acting affirmatively," though he's not exactly for affirmative action.
For me, this revelation was the highlight of last week's Unity, the convention of more than 6,000 minority journalists that takes place every three to five years.
Normally a marketplace for underrepresented minorities trying to break down barriers in mostly white media organizations, this third convention was an eye opener because of the president's statements during his appearance there.
If ever there was an occasion on which Bush could have demonstrated his leadership ability, a gathering of minority journalists was it. Most of them weren't there to "cover the speech." They wanted to hear what their president had to say, person to person, and see how he envisioned solutions to the problems of working in a field rife with discrimination.
Journalists, after all, are people, too.
Bush's opening stump speech was filled with boilerplate stuff we've heard before, including his race rhetoric about how his administration challenges "the soft bigotry of low expectations."
A great poetic phrase, but what does it mean?
"If you lower the bar, guess what happens? You get lousy results," said Bush, who uses the phrase to demonstrate how he believes in raising standards of excellence among minorities in the public schools.
Sounds good. But when Bush went off script and began to take questions, the president had what I call a Michael Moore moment. Actually, he had several of them.
Instead of hearing hard answers to tough questions, we listened to misstatements and soft mush, all pointing to a general inadequacy in the man seen as the leader of the free world.
The first moment came when Mark Trahant of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) asked him, "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?"
Said the president, "Tribal sovereignty means that -- it's sovereign. You're a -- you've been given sovereignty, and you're viewed as a sovereign entity. And, therefore, the relationship between the federal government and tribes is one between sovereign entities."
This was the president talking. He wasn't kidding. Some in the audience laughed. I wanted to cry. Shall we start a Leave No President Behind campaign?
Later, when I talked to NAJA President Patty Talahongva, she wondered why Bush didn't just talk honestly about real sovereignty issues that have an impact on Native Americans.
"The biggest issue in Indian country is the Individual Indian Money trust account," said Talahongva, referring to a scandal that involves the failure of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to keep track of Indian families owed money for lands leased to the government -- funds amounting to billions of dollars. "It's bigger than any corporate scandal," she added. "It starts from the top. If the leader doesn't say, 'Fix this,' no one down the chain does."
But the most revealing moment during Bush's appearance came when the subject turned to affirmative action and legacy; the latter word refers to what is essentially affirmative action for whites: They gain admission to an elite school because their parents are alums.
Bush is a Yale legacy.
"Well, in my case, I had to knock on a lot of doors to follow in the old man's footsteps," said Bush, prompting some laughter from the audience. The president was caught red handed, and his recovery was pathetic. "No, look," Bush said, "if what you're saying is, is there going to be special treatment for people -- in other words, we're going to give a special exception for certain people in a system that's supposed to be fair, I agree I don't think there ought to be."
So, he was asked, should colleges get rid of the legacy system, Bush's ticket to Yale?
"Well, I think so, yes," he said in a surprising moment of candor. "I think it ought to be based upon merit."
Did he realize what he was saying? It was like admitting he would have been lucky to get into North Texas State. The panel of reporters working the event then pressed him: Is he for affirmative action? The president said he is for diversity but that he is against quotas. He just couldn't bear to say he is for affirmative action. Or against it.
"I support colleges affirmatively taking action to get more minorities in their school," said Bush.
Was he dodging? Was he being flip? Or did he mean it? Without a prompter, Bush was far too revealing for comfort.
When the subject turned to the war, it got only worse. He said he had a new name for it.
"We actually misnamed the war on terror," Bush said. "It ought to be 'the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies and who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world.'"
I felt for the president. I think he felt he was connecting intellectually.
But, in his candor, he just seemed to be unraveling. His merit, or lack thereof, was exposed.
Originally, I went to hear him speak because I wanted to determine whether he could address problems I consider essential to the minority community, whether he would utter answers you don't hear anywhere else, because the questions are never asked.
I didn't even go to Kerry's speech the previous day at Unity, because I saw his performance at the Democratic convention. My vote isn't going to be based on what he says. This race is Bush's to lose. I wanted to be the guy in a crowd of minority journalists who would give the president a fair hearing.
I think I did. I wanted and expected a leader. Instead, I heard a man who is more confused than ever on the topic of race.
Emil Guillermo is a radio and TV commentator and the author of "Amok: Essays from an Asian-American Perspective," winner of an American Book Award. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
NATIVE UNITY - A place for Native American Peoples to solidify their tribes to make a positive impact on the cultural, social, economic and political fabric of American society and a place for non-Natives to better understand the ways of the American Indian.