Archdiocese Leaves Kerry and President off Guest List
For more than 50 years, the road to the White House has almost always included a white-tie rest stop at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, a charity roast at the Waldorf-Astoria named for the nation’s first Roman Catholic to be a major party’s presidential nominee.
Since the dinners were first given in 1945, the only presidents not to address them have been Harry S. Truman and Bill Clinton. But on Oct. 21 this year, when guests put on their tiaras and tails for one of the premier political roasts of the year, they will be treated not to Bush and Kerry, but to Bush and Carey. Former President George Bush and former Gov. Hugh L. Carey, that is.
The Catholic Archdiocese of New York — which agonized internally over whether Senator John Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights, should be invited — decided in the end not to invite Mr. Kerry or the man he hopes to unseat, President Bush.
”The tradition of the Smith dinner is to bring people together,” said Joseph Zwilling, the spokesman for the archdiocese. ”Given that issues in this year’s campaign could provoke division and disagreement that would detract from that spirit, it was felt best to proceed in a different direction while maintaining all of the ideals and values of the dinner.
”President George H.W. Bush and Gov. Hugh L. Carey are each outstanding speakers who will provide a memorable and enjoyable evening to the guests at the dinner honoring the legacy of the ‘happy warrior’ and the Smith dinner itself.”
Mr. Zwilling declined to elaborate. Some Democrats wondered privately whether President Bush was being passed over because Pope John Paul II had opposed the invasion of Iraq. But architects of the war or Bush administration officials have spoken at the Smith dinner for the last three years: Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who commanded the war, spoke last year; Secretary of State Colin L. Powell addressed the dinner the year before; and Vice President Dick Cheney gave a somber address the year before that.
Although scheduling conflicts have kept candidates away in some past election years, the only other time in more than four decades that the nation’s presidential candidates were not invited to the dinner was in 1996, when organizers decided not to invite President Bill Clinton after Cardinal John O’Connor criticized him for vetoing a bill that would have outlawed some late-term abortions. His challenger, Bob Dole, was not invited either, to keep the dinner from taking on a one-sided tone. Their running mates, Vice President Al Gore and Jack Kemp, spoke in their places that year.
Ever since it became apparent that Senator Kerry was likely to be the first Catholic to obtain the presidential nomination of a major party since John F. Kennedy, the Catholic church has grappled with how it should treat Catholic candidates who support abortion rights.
In June the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops approved a statement saying politicians who support abortion rights were ”cooperating in evil” and leaving the door open for bishops to deny communion to them. The bishops also stated that ”the Catholic community and Catholic institutions” should not give ”awards, honors or platforms” to Catholics who ”act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”
Several Catholic officials who support abortion rights — including Gov. George E. Pataki and former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, both Republicans, and former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, a Democrat — have been welcomed on the dais and applauded at past dinners.
Senator Kerry has attended the dinner in the past as a guest. His campaign declined to address the church’s decision not to invite him. ”It’s a great dinner for a great cause, and we wish them a successful evening,” said Phil Singer, a Kerry campaign spokesman. The White House referred questions about the dinner to the archdiocese.
Frances Kissling, the president of Catholics for a Free Choice, an abortion rights advocacy group, lamented the fact that abortion has become the litmus test for many church leaders during this campaign, to the exclusion of other issues. ”To allow the single issue of abortion to override the important issues that this country is facing at the time is a disservice to the country and to Catholics,” she said.
The Smith dinner has traditionally offered candidates a chance to poke fun at themselves and laugh with, and not at, their opponents while raising money for health-related charities.
During the 2000 race, George W. Bush jokingly told the audience, ”Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.” His father, who is now referred to as George H.W. Bush, told the dinner during the 1988 campaign that he had not seen so many well-dressed people since ”I went to a come-as-you-are-party in Kennebunkport.”
Mr. Carey, the former governor, and a veteran of many past Smith dinners, declined to comment on this year’s dinner.
But his apparent role as a stand-in deemed less controversial than Mr. Kerry was of some historic interest. In 1981, after Mr. Carey, a widower, married Evangeline Gouletas, who had been divorced in the past, the Brooklyn Diocese said that he could not be a godfather to a state legislator’s son because his marriage had not been sanctioned by the Catholic Church.
This article originally appeared in the 17 September 2004 edition of the New York Times.