If you know one thing about Mitt Romney's speech before the NAACP convention in Houston this week it's probably that he was booed for vowing to repeal ObamaCare.
What you may not know is that he got a standing ovation as he left the stage and elicited applause several times during his 25-minute address to the nation's oldest civil rights group.
No one would mistake the polite reception received by Romney Wednesday for the wildly enthusiastic welcome for Vice President Joe Biden today. But, as John Cassidy noted in the New Yorker, booing wasn't the story. He recalled watching left-wing activists "being dragged kicking and screaming" from public appearances of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and seeing anti-war protesters "rush the stage" when Bush administration officials gave speeches.
"Romney received a pretty cordial reception from the crowd," he wrote. "All told, it was a pretty effective speech delivered in a potentially hostile setting."
"I don’t know why he wouldn’t necessarily get a cordial response. These are professional African-Americans," Daniella Gibbs Leger, a former official in the Obama White House who now works on issues involving race and politics at the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, told The Huffington Post. "They're going to be polite."
The Romney campaign spin was predictably upbeat, with aides saying they were “pleasantly surprised by the positive reception.”
Still, most of the mainstream media coverage focused on the booing over the ObamaCare line. Some noted scattered jeers when the Republican said he, not the first African-American president, “will make things better in the African American community.” Others noted boredom, not boos, predominated. BuzzFeed posted a photos of audience members that telegraphed "meh."
Romney did get points for being there.
William Braxton, an NAACP delegate from Charles County, Md., told the New York Times that he gave Romney "thumbs up for being courageous" enough to appear. He was skeptical, though, that he would make a better president than President Obama. "Maybe his view is that he could tell us what we want to hear and we’re supposed to swallow it," he said, making clear he did not.
Yet sometimes showing up is almost as important as speaking, Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, told HuffPost. He recalled that President George W. Bush turned down the NAACP's invitation five times
before finally agreeing to speak to the group in 2006.
"There was an appreciation that (Romney) came in the first place," Ornstein said. "It was a very smart move on his part. He's being hailed in many quarters as being courageous but what he made was a political calculation."
Especially since it did not go unnoticed that Obama chose to skip the event.
Still, the conservative media went into overdrive to parse positive reaction to Romney's words and to point out how it was overlooked elsewhere.
Fred Eckert, a former one-term Republican member of Congress, wrote in the Daily Caller that even though Romney gave "a walking-on-water performance," you would never know it by reading most media accounts.
For example, he noted the "enthusiastic" applause when Romney said, “As president, I will promote strong families — and I will defend traditional marriage.”
The right-wing Brietbart.com website accused the media of a "cover up" for the lack of reporting on applause that greeted that line.
Many black clergy do oppose gay marriage but since President Obama endorsed marriage equality this spring, African-American public opinion has shifted. The ABC News/Washington Post poll shows support in the community has risen to 59 percent, up from 41 percent this spring and last summer. And, days after Obama's announcement, the NAACP passed a resolution supporting marriage equality for same-sex couples.
Meanwhile, NAACP officials downplayed what positive reaction there was in the hall. Hilary Shelton, who heads the the group's Washington, D.C. chapter, suggested most of the applause came from Romney campaign supporters planted in the audience.
“Quite frankly, the campaign actually gave me a list of African-American VIPs that they brought into the NAACP meeting,” Shelton said on "The Ed Show". “These are people who are brought in to actually provide the cheering for him, so there will be some support along those lines.”
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous called Romney's speech a "missed opportunity" and said his comment on ObamaCare was designed to elicit boos so he could show conservatives he won't change his views to please liberal-leaning crowds.
But if Romney knew he would get panned for his position on health care, he might have guessed that the crowd would warm to his talking about his father George Romney, the Michigan governor who was an active champion for civil rights. As he walked offstage, the crowd rose to its feet for an ovation that may have had more to do with the father than the son.
"When he got thunderous applause for his dad, there was a little bit of irony," Ornstein said. "It was applause for a different era when Republicans were in the forefront of the civil rights movement."
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