Romney was wise to accept the invitation -- though, God knows, the temptation to decline must have been tremendous. The NAACP hasn't exactly covered itself in glory over the past few years. In 2000, the organization ran dishonest and disgraceful television and radio ads suggesting that George W. Bush had been somehow indifferent to the horrible lynching of James Byrd in Texas. More recently, the group -- theoretically dedicated to the best interests of black Americans -- has joined teachers unions in attempting to block charter schools and has condemned the tea party movement as racist.
Still, by attending the conference and describing the invitation as an "honor," Romney demonstrated an important trait in a leader: a readiness to be respectful to everyone -- particularly those with whom you disagree. Romney was graciousness itself when he told the group:
"I can't promise that you and I will agree on every issue. But I do promise that your hospitality to me today will be returned. We will know one another, and work to common purposes. I will seek your counsel. And if I am elected president, and you invite me to next year's convention, I would count it as a privilege, and my answer will be yes."
It also demonstrates a strength of character to address a less than supportive audience -- at least in the way Romney did it. He didn't pull his punches or pander. He was forthright, honest and persuasive.
Naturally, the mainstream press focused on the boos he received after promising to repeal Obamacare (though they hardly mentioned the standing ovation at the end). Leading liberals like Nancy Pelosi and Rachel Maddow even accused Romney of getting booed intentionally. "I think it was a calculated move on his part to get booed at the NAACP convention," the House minority leader told Bloomberg TV. Maddow suggested on MSNBC that "he wanted to wear that around his neck like a badge of courage."
It goes without saying that if any conservative group had booed a liberal speaker, Maddow, Pelosi and the gang would be purple with rage about the "intolerance" and "lack of civility" on the right.
But never mind the liberal claque. Romney's speech was a model of what political discourse should be. Rather than minimize his devotion to free enterprise, Romney embraced it with a fresh and effective image:
"I am also a believer in the free-enterprise system. I believe it can bring change where so many well-meaning government programs have failed. I've never heard anyone look around an impoverished neighborhood and say: 'You know, there's too much free enterprise around here. Too many shops, too many jobs, too many people putting money in the bank.'"
Nice. As with the true story of Romneycare (a subject I addressed in a recent column), Romney had a good story to tell about his record in Massachusetts. Romney had pushed for higher standards, merit pay for outstanding teachers and greater parental choice through expanded charter schools. This provoked the ire of the Massachusetts teachers unions, who were able to get the legislature to pass a moratorium on new charter schools. Romney recalled: "As governor, I vetoed the bill blocking charter schools. But our legislature was 87 percent Democrat, and my veto could have been easily overridden. So I joined with the Black Legislative Caucus, and their votes helped preserve my veto, which meant that new charter schools, including some in urban neighborhoods, would be opened."
In one deft stroke, Romney placed himself on the side of poor kids who deserve better from the education system, while also reminding his somewhat hidebound audience that many African-Americans agree with him.
Finally, while few seemed to notice, Romney mentioned one aspect of his planned reform of entitlements that contradicts the caricature of him as the candidate of the rich. As part of a plan to reduce soaring entitlement spending, he said, he would reform Social Security and Medicare, "in part by means-testing their benefits."
Is this not exactly the sort of straight talk pundits and analysts are forever lamenting the lack of in our politics? Is it not the polar opposite of the interest group chuck wagon President Obama has been driving for months?
It is. And if Romney keeps this up, it will be remembered as a turning point in the campaign.