Time out. But not really.
Between their angry denunciations of each other, between a solemn ceremony honoring two police officers killed in a drug bust and a speech at a church in Harlem, Vice President George Bush and Michael S. Dukakis called a brief truce Thursday evening.
The two warriors in the race for the presidency, dressed in white tie and forced smiles, took time out for an evening of self-deprecating political humor, with only New York Cardinal John J. O’Connor dining between them.
The two candidates met at the annual formal dinner honoring the late Gov. Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic Party’s unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1928.
Tribute to the ‘Happy Warrior’
Each paid homage to the man known as the “Happy Warrior,” who was defeated by Herbert Hoover in a campaign marked by bigotry aimed at Smith’s religion. He was the first Roman Catholic to run for the presidency.
Each got modest applause at this nonpartisan charity dinner. But the centerpiece was humor, just as at previous Al Smith dinners, which have traditionally been de rigueur for presidential candidates.
Walter F. Mondale passed it up four years ago to prepare for a debate with Ronald Reagan and drew sharp rebukes from New York political figures as a result.
It was an evening, said the normally serious Dukakis, “when all thought of politics is banished and I can concentrate on what I do best--comedy.”
To the laughter that ensued, he responded drily: “What’s so funny about that?”
And so it went, with the five-foot-eight Dukakis pointing out that the vice president has said he wants to return America “to the little guy.”
“Mr. Vice President, I am that man,” he said. Bush laughed.
Dukakis decided, he said, when he looked at himself in the mirror while shaving Thursday morning, that the presidential race would “be decided by a nose.”
The man with the decidedly prominent nose added: “If that’s the case, you’re looking at the next President of America.”
Then it was the vice president’s turn.
George Herbert Walker Bush--he of New England lineage--revealed that his ancestors landed at Ellis Island, the disembarkation point for many turn-of-the century immigrants from Europe, including Dukakis’ parents.
Pokes Fun at Mayflower Heritage
“They were aboard the Mayflower when it made a pit stop on its way to Plymouth,” Bush said, pausing for the audience laughter to die down, before adding: “My people were the ones waving the Bloomingdale’s shopping bags.”
That line having worked, he tried another:
“I haven’t seen so many people so well dressed since I went to a come-as-you-are party in Kennebunkport,” referring to the tony coastal town in Maine where he maintains a sprawling summer residence.
It all added up to a Carson-like performance. Nevertheless, Bush suggested his wife stole the most memorable line from the vice presidential debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle when she told him as he rehearsed:
“I know Johnny Carson. Johnny Carson is a friend of mine. And George, you’re no Johnny Carson.”