October 23, 2008
The Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner is a unique event in American politics. Held every October for the last 63 years, it draws major figures of all parties and persuasions to have a good time for a good cause. Its keynote speakers have included eleven presidents or presidents-to-be, foreign leaders, diplomats, generals, entertainers, and broadcasters. The dinner gets the most attention in presidential election years. Beginning in 1960 with John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, five pairs of opposing candidates have jointly shared the dias, culminating last Thursday with John McCain and Barack Obama, fresh from their testy debate the previous night.
Unlike the frivolous froth of the Gridiron Club and the Washington Correspondents Association dinners, the Al Smith bash is light-hearted without being light-headed. It affords speakers the momentary opportunity to relax and joke about themselves and their rivals, but also to interject words of inspiration and principle above the usual partisan sloganeering. The Archbishop of New York shares their table, and the proceeds of the event help to fund the work of Catholic Charities of New York, which serves the poor and distressed regardless of their religion. (This year, the $1,000-a-plate white-tie affair at the Waldorf Astoria raised nearly four million dollars.)
The dinner was initiated in 1945 by Archbishop Francis Spellman, arguably the most powerful political personage in New York City next to the mayor, to honor the memory of New York Governor Al Smith, who had died the previous year. Born in a tenement on the Lower East Side in 1873, Smith had no formal education beyond elementary school, yet with his quick wit and shrewd political sense rose rapidly through the ranks of the Democratic Tammany Hall political machine and was elected governor in 1918. Defeated in 1920, he aligned himself with the progressive wing of the party and subsequently regained the governorship in 1922, serving three more terms. His impassioned efforts on behalf of the poor and working classes earned him national recognition, and in 1928 he was nominated to run for president against Republican bureaucrat Herbert Hoover — who beat him in a landslide.
Smith's loss has often been attributed to "the three P's": prosperity, prohibition, and prejudice. His warnings of impending disasters in agriculture, industry, and finance went unheeded. His thinly-veiled "neutrality" on Prohibition — as well as his Irish roots — made him suspect among the drys. And his Catholic faith turned many against him in fear. Despite declaring his belief in "absolute freedom of conscience for all" and "the absolute separation of Church and State," anti-Catholic groups nationwide depicted him as a pawn of the Vatican. In one curious but not atypical example, one flyer showed a photo of Smith beside New York's Cardinal Patrick Hayes decked out in his medieval regalia at the 1927 dedication of the New York-New Jersey Holland Tunnel, with a caption claiming the tunnel was the passageway through which the pope would secretly enter the United States and set himself up in the Smith White House.
Following his defeat, Smith turned to business. As president of Empire State, Inc., he masterminded the construction of the Empire State Building in just 13 months in 1930-31. After vying unsuccessfully with Franklin Roosevelt for the 1932 Democratic nomination, he left elective politics for good.
Al Smith's image as "the Happy Warrior," his dedication to social justice, and his relentless and far-sighted opposition to racial and religious bigotry have not been lost on those chosen to speak at the gala for the foundation he established and his descendants have perpetuated. In 1960, with the election just weeks away and facing anti-Catholic sentiment reminiscent of Smith's own campaign, John Kennedy joined with his opponent Richard Nixon to joke amicably about themselves and each other, to acknowledge the country's debt to Smith, and to deplore religious intolerance. Forty-eight years later, with the issue of race still in play, McCain and Obama again invoked Smith's spirit with good humor and uncommon decency.
Surveying the scene from wherever he is in the cosmos, Al Smith must have been enormously pleased.
Eighty years ago this November, as the dismal election results came in, Smith sent a one-word telegram to Pope Pius XI at the Vatican: "Unpack."