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Annual Al Smith Dinner Carries on the Tradition of the “Happy Warrior”


Jeffrey Bruno

Karee Santos - published on 10/02/14

Charlie Rose and Home Depot Co-Founder Ken Langone share podium with Cardinal Dolan

This year’s Al Smith Dinner raised nearly $3 million for the needy women and children of New York. Seated at crystal-laden tables filling the burgundy and gold ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue in Manhattan, the 850 guests listened to presentations from this year’s honoree, philanthropist and Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, guest speaker Charlie Rose, and the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

All of the proceeds of the $2,000-a-plate dinner went towards the nearly 20 grant recipients, including Catholic Big Sisters and Big Brothers, the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, and Good Counsel homes for unwed mothers. The Al Smith Foundation itself underwrote the cost of the dinner, which included king crab salad with lacquered prawns, grilled tournedo of beef with white truffle risotto fritters, and a gingered chocolate dessert with salted caramel sauce. As Alfred E. Smith, IV, chairman of the annual gala that is named for his great-grandfather, explained, "The dinner’s on us."

In presidential election years, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates normally attend the Al Smith Dinner and indulge in some friendly roasting while taking a much-needed break from the campaign trail. In this mid-term election year, however, the major political attendees in evidence were U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY), as well as New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. Other prominent New York City officials were there, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, and former city mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Cardinal Dolan presented philanthropist and Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone with this year’s Happy Warrior Award for Langone’s great contributions to New York City, including donating to the NYU Medical Center, which now bears his name, and becoming a major fundraiser for the restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. The Happy Warrior Award "recognizes individuals who epitomize the character, grace, and leadership of Governor Alfred E. Smith," the first Catholic presidential candidate, "by having a positive impact on others and the City of New York," stated the dinner program. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt had called Smith the "happy warrior of the political battlefield."

Aside from an opening prayer from Cardinal Edward Egan, Archbishop Emeritus of New York, and a moving, unaccompanied performance of the National Anthem by Metropolitan Opera tenor Bryan Hymel, the traditional roasting was in full swing.

In Langone’s acceptance speech, he quipped that, considering the mandatory 75-year-old retirement age for cardinals, Cardinal Dolan might need employment soon. Offering the cardinal a job at Home Depot, Langone presented His Eminence with a bright orange apron and then a second, much bigger one, just in case the first did not fit his girth. Poking more fun at Cardinal Dolan’s size, Langone joked, "If they ever change the rules about celibacy, I’ve got a perfect girl for you. Her name is Jenny Craig," referring to the popular weight-loss program.

Acknowledging that his fundraising efforts on behalf of many Republican presidential candidates had not borne fruit, Langone said it just went to prove the old adage that you keep your enemies close and your friends closer, but apparently out of the White House. Then he laughingly threatened the Democrats in the audience that he would do a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, thus ensuring her failure.

To much applause, guest speaker Charlie Rose, host of the PBS show Charlie Rose and co-anchor of CBS This Morning, stated that "the reason I came this evening was because of Cardinal Dolan. I love him." But Rose wondered why he had been invited to speak, when so many famous people had stood at the podium before him. "I don’t have the stature of Churchill, the wit of Kennedy, or the comedy of [last year’s guest speaker Stephen] Colbert. But I’m not worried. I’m a Protestant at a Catholic charity event with jokes written by Jewish writers. I’m okay."

Referring to the Al Smith Foundation’s habit of inviting presidents and presidential candidates to the dinner, Rose quipped that the Foundation "has already received an RSVP from Hillary [Clinton] for 2016." In an equal opportunity jab at Democrats, he claimed that President Barack Obama "came to the U.N. hoping to meet with the President of Iran but Rouhani does not play golf."

Continuing in the same light-hearted vein, Rose pondered what would happen if Pope Francis retired, as Pope Benedict did before him. Then, there might be "three popes — one for venial sins, one for mortal sins, and one for cardinals!"

Turning then to more serious matters, Rose stated the importance of dialogue between people who often find themselves on opposite sides of the fence. The Al Smith Dinner, he said, is where "serious people can talk about serious things" without the need to offer spin or soundbites. Respectful dialogue can form a "bulwark against hate and extremism," Rose said, and that is why he feels so impressed by Pope Francis’ demonstration of a genuine "respect for discourse."

All joking aside, Cardinal Dolan brought dinner guests to a "higher plain" before they spilled out onto midtown Manhattan’s street. He mentioned his deep affection for the evening’s Happy Warrior Award recipient and his wife, Elaine. Stating that Langone’s secret was "a woman named Elaine," he added, "there’s another woman in Ken’s life and her name is Holy Mother Church. He begins each day with her," apparently referring to Langone’s habit of attending daily Mass.

The Al Smith Dinner has had its detractors in recent years, who lament that it has given such a prominent platform to some of the Church’s strongest opponents on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. But Cardinal Dolan emphasized the importance of political opponents like "a Kennedy and a Nixon … an Obama and a Romney" coming together in joy and fellowship in a way that helps others. "Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence," he said. 

The cardinal then ended with "a simple prayer" that God bless the attendees and the entire great city of New York.

To which we can all say, "Amen."

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