Just two days after they went at each other in the second presidential debate, President Obama and Mitt Romney shared a dais, a dinner and a lot of laughs at the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner—raising $5 million for Catholic charities that help needy children in the archdiocese.
Cardinal Dolan, host of the glittering Oct. 18 dinner held in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, sat between the two candidates, who delighted the more than 1,600 guests with light-hearted speeches that poked fun at themselves and at one another.
Gov. Romney, wearing the white-tie formal attire that’s traditional at the dinner, joked about his image as a wealthy businessman who’s out of touch with average Americans. “It’s nice to finally relax and wear what Ann and I wear around the house,” he said, as he opened his remarks.
Obama, whose poll numbers dropped after a lackluster performance at the first presidential debate Oct. 3, a date that coincided with his wedding anniversary, quipped, “I felt really well rested after the nice long nap I had in the first debate,” adding that he also learned that “there are worse things that can happen to you on your anniversary than forgetting to buy a gift.”
But it was Cardinal Dolan, giving the benediction at the end, whose remarks cut to the substance of the evening, telling the candidates, the dignitaries on the dais and the dinner guests that the annual dinner “shows the United States of America and the Catholic Church at their best.”
“Think about it,” the cardinal said. “Here we are, in an atmosphere of civility and humor, hosted, fittingly, by a Church that claims that joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence.”
Serving as master of ceremonies of the 67th annual Al Smith Dinner, as it is popularly known, was Alfred E. Smith IV, great-grandson of the dinner’s namesake, the New York governor who made history in 1928 as the first Catholic to run for president.
The dinner has become an important date on New York’s social and political calendar, as it’s held in the weeks before Election Day and features high-level political figures as speakers (although they’re told to keep their remarks light). It is also is a major fund-raising vehicle for Catholic charitable agencies.
In a sign of the dinner’s place in archdiocesan life, Cardinal Dolan took time away from the world Synod of Bishops in Rome to attend, arriving in New York that afternoon and flying back that same night.
In his remarks, Cardinal Dolan, who also is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, pointedly noted that Americans of all backgrounds are grateful to be “people of faith and loyal Americans, loving a country which considers religious liberty our first and most cherished freedom, convinced that faith is not just limited to an hour of Sabbath worship but affects everything we do and dare and dream.”
In that regard, the U.S. bishops have been in a bitter dispute with the Obama administration for mandating that religious institutions such as Catholic hospitals and colleges include coverage for contraception in their employee health plans.
The bishops, some of whom have filed lawsuits, say the mandate is a violation of religious freedom because compliance would force religious institutions to violate Church teaching.
The cardinal’s most stirring remarks, however, came when he called on the two candidates to heed the vision of Al Smith, “a man of deep Catholic faith and ringing patriotism, who had a tear in his Irish eyes for what we would call the ‘uns’—the ‘uns’ of the world.”
These are, he said, the unemployed, the uninsured, the unwanted, the unwed mother, the innocent fragile unborn baby in her womb, the undocumented, the unhoused, the unhealthy, the unfed and the undereducated.
“Government, Al Smith believed, should be on the side of these ‘uns,’” Cardinal Dolan said. “But a government, he also believed, (should be) partnering with family, church, parish, neighborhood, organizations and community—never intruding or imposing since, when all is said and done, it’s in God we trust, not, ultimately, in government or politics.”