For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
The annual charitable event of the Al Smith Dinner is an institution not merely in New York City and the Archdiocese of New York but in American political life. For 70 years, the dinner has raised money for children in honor of the honorable Catholic politician Al Smith, who was elected the Governor of New York four times and was the Democratic U.S. presidential candidate in 1928. Smith’s unlikely climb to the White House was crushed by a combination of bad timing (Herbert Hoover, the Republican, rode a wave of seeming prosperity to victory) and the simple fact that America was unready to choose a Catholic. The 1928 campaign was marked by poisonous anti-Catholicism across much of the country, as Smith was battered by contempt for Catholics and charges of being in the thrall of the popes.
For that reason alone, the start of the Al Smith Dinner in 1945 is remarkable. Begun a year after his death, the dinner has raised millions of dollars as a white tie event attended by political, business, media and cultural leaders who set aside their differences in honor of a great man and a great cause. The list of previous attendees and speakers is a star-studded gallery, including Winston Churchill, Tony Blair, Bob Hope, Bob Newhart, Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell. What has made the dinner unique, however, is that every four years, the two candidates for the presidency usually attend. There have been exceptions – such as in 1996 when President Bill Clinton was not invited, generally because of his veto of the partial-birth abortion bill, and 2004 when Senator John Kerry was not asked for a similar stance on abortion – but generally, the dinner has been a chance for the two nominees to share a stage one last time just before the election to trade gentle and typically funny and self-deprecating barbs. The 2012 dinner with President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney was especially memorable for the funny speeches by both candidates.
All of this background is helpful because four years ago now seems like a lifetime.
While virtually every moment of the 2016 presidential election has been turned into a bitter and depressing political struggle, there had been some hope, even expectation, that the long history of the Al Smith Dinners might induce both candidates this year to avoid even for the length of a meal the kind of scorched earth politics they have embraced now for the whole campaign. That aspiration was largely dashed by both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in their speeches on Thursday night.
Both used humor and even some fun self-deprecating remarks in their addresses, but these were immolated by the rancorous and mean-spirited comments that populated most of what they had to say about each other. This was a pity because both had some good lines.
Speaking to the host of the evening, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York – the archbishops are the traditional hosts – Trump quipped, “You know Cardinal Dolan and I have some things in common. For instance, we both run impressive properties on Fifth Avenue. Of course his is much more impressive than mine. That’s because I built mine with my own beautifully formed hands. While his was built with the hands of God, and nobody can compete with God.” And later, he joked about his opponent, “These events give not only the candidates a chance to be with each other in a very social setting; it also allows the candidates the opportunity to meet the other candidate’s team — good team. I know Hillary met my campaign manager, and I got the chance to meet the people who are working so hard to get her elected. There they are — the heads of NBC, CNN, CBS, ABC — there’s the New York Times, right over there, and the Washington Post.”
During her turn at the podium, Hillary joked, “I kind of want to just put the information out there, so everybody can draw their own conclusions and you can judge our relative health. We’ve each released our medical records. My blood pressure is 100/70. His is unbelievably great. My cholesterol is 189, his is presidential. My heart rate is 72 beats per minute, his is the most beats ever, or the least beats ever, whichever sounds best.”
And both had some gracious things to say about the experience of American Catholics. “One thing we can all agree on,” Trump said, “is the need to support the great work that comes out of the dinner. Millions of dollars have been raised to support disadvantaged children, and I applaud the many people who have worked to make this wonderful event a critical lifeline for children in need…We can also agree on the need to stand up to anti-Catholic bias, to defend religious liberty and to create a culture that celebrates life.”
Clinton gave a lengthy homage to Al Smith, saying at one point, “And when I think about what Al Smith went through it’s important to just reflect how groundbreaking it was for him, a Catholic, to be my party’s nominee for president. Don’t forget – school boards sent home letters with children saying that if Al Smith is elected president you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible. Voters were told that he would annul Protestant marriages.”
Clinton’s words are viewed by many Catholics as ironic given the Wikileaks revelations about her campaign staff’s predilection for anti-Catholicism. Nevertheless, as the dinner was carried live by virtually every cable news network, they were words Americans today who marinate in often anti-Catholic and anti-Christian culture need to hear.
All of the jabs and articulate statements might have been remembered had both not followed them up with stinging attacks on their rival. Clinton went from the health jokes to say, “But Donald really is as healthy as a horse, you know, the one Vladimir Putin rides around on.” Trump was even harsher. “We’ve learned so much from WikiLeaks,” he said. “For example, Hillary believes that it’s vital to deceive the people by having one public policy — and a totally different policy in private... For example, here she is tonight, in public, pretending not to hate Catholics.”
This is an angry election. And it has now spilled into even traditionally lighthearted events intended to raise money for children. There can be discussion, of course, as to whether one or the other should have been invited in the first place, whether such humor about the Clinton campaign’s problem with faithful Catholics warrants being called on it during a dinner honoring a great Catholic politician and even whether the tradition of inviting the candidates should continue given where we seem to be in the political life of the country. These are fair questions, and Thomas McCardle asks several more in his recent piece for the Register on this event.
Only very rarely have boos ever been heard during the charity dinner, but they were given on this night, in response to several comments by Trump. In fairness, they came chiefly from the New York elite that until a few years ago invited him warmly into their homes and to all of their Manhattan events.
New York socially and politically can be a rough and unforgiving place. In welcome contrast to all of that is Cardinal Dolan who made every effort to keep the evening cordial and faithful to its real purpose. But he also had the hope of getting two political mortal enemies to speak to each other, embrace even fleeting civility, and put aside their differences for a good and worthy cause. He succeeded in some ways. As was reported on the Today Show:
While each candidate delivered some biting comments while taking a turn behind the dais at the Al Smith Dinner, "there were some very touching moments" in private, Dolan said, describing one right after he asked both of them to pray with him.
“After the little prayer, Mr. Trump turned to Secretary Clinton and said, ‘You are one tough and talented woman,’” Dolan said. "He said, 'This has been a good experience, this whole campaign, as tough as it’s been.'"
Clinton then returned the compliment. “She said to him, ‘Donald, whatever happens, we need to work together afterward,’” Dolan said.
“This is the evening at its best,” he said, describing the event as “a family dinner where you’re just hoping things go well.”
Dolan said it was obvious the two candidates "are kind of awkward together," but said that's to be expected. He noted four years ago there was a similar "iciness" between then-Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama at the same event.
“The purpose of the evening is to break some of the ice, and thanks be to God, it works,” Dolan said.
In this election, that might be all we can ask.