NEW YORK – Because President Bush and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (search) were deemed too divisive for the annual Alfred E. Smith (search) political dinner, the crowd heard from former President Bush and former New York Gov. Hugh Carey (search) instead.
But without the presidential candidates, George H.W. Bush (search) had to come up with new material.
"Here goes my Heinz ketchup joke," he said at Thursday night's 59th annual charity dinner, which serves as a sort of who's who of politics. "There goes my flip-flop joke."
Traditionally, presidential candidates are asked to attend, but neither President Bush nor Kerry was invited because the sponsor, the Archdiocese of New York, felt that campaign issues could "provoke divisiveness" and detract from the "spirit" of the event.
"Ladies and gentleman," Alfred E. Smith IV, a relative of Smith, joked during opening remarks. "We promised you Bush and Kerry and we brought you Bush and Carey."
Four years ago, Al Gore and George W. Bush spoke at what has become a highly anticipated tradition a few weeks before Election Day. The last time neither presidential candidate spoke at the dinner was 1996, when Gore and Jack Kemp attended instead of President Clinton and his Republican challenger, Sen. Robert Dole.
Speakers at the event tend to stick to humor rather than politics, though sometimes the lines become a little blurred.
"The criticisms of the president have gotten Barbara pretty steamed," former President Bush noted. "If Barbara gets her hands on Sen. Kerry he's going to need another Purple Heart."
But Bush saved some barbs for his son — and in particular his famed malapropisms.
"He wrote a paper when he was in fifth grade in which he said in 1519 Ferdinand Magellan circumcised the world," Bush said.
No one's drawn a direct link, but the snubs to the current presidential candidates followed a statement by a top Vatican official in April that Holy Communion should be denied to Catholic politicians who support abortion and do not follow other church teachings. The bishops of St. Louis and Boston later said they would not offer Holy Communion to Kerry, who is Catholic and pro-choice.
Representatives of both presidential campaigns have declined to comment on the dinner snubs.
Smith was a Democratic New York governor. In 1928 he became the first Roman Catholic to be a major party's candidate for president, a race won by Republican Herbert Hoover. Smith died in 1944.
Thursday's $800-a-plate dinner raised money for health care programs in New York.