Tables go for as much as $150,000—for a dinner held in honor of a man who rose from near poverty.
Gen. James Mattis, retired U.S. Secretary of Defense, will take to the podium of the annual Al Smith Dinner at the New York Hilton Midtown this Thursday evening. He will headline the 74th dinner, following in the footsteps of heads of state, government dignitaries, presidential candidates, and well-known personalities.
The white tie dinner on October 17 brings out New York’s elite for an evening of good food and laughs. It’s supposed to be an apolitical affair, but many in New York, and national, politics wouldn’t miss being there.
And for some of New York’s poorest families who are helped by the dinner’s proceeds, that’s a good thing.
Aside from the fact that a seat on the Al Smith Dinner’s dais is one of the most coveted places in New York in October, here are a few fun facts about the legendary October fundraiser:
- The dinner has one of the highest ticket prices in town—tables of 10 go for as much as $150,000—but it’s held in honor of a man who rose from near poverty. Proceeds are donated to charity—to help kids in New York whose families can barely get by.
- Alfred Emmanuel Smith was the first Catholic to run for president of the United States on a major ticket (Democratic), and by 1960 the dinner had become a “ritual of American politics,” according to Theodore H. White. Author of The Making of the President 1960 and similar studies in successive presidential election years. Weeks after Sens. John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon shared the limelight at the 1960 dinner, Kennedy became the first Catholic to be elected president.
- The 1960 dinner is often cited as the start of a tradition of inviting the two major candidates every four years. But in 1964, Republican candidate Barry Goldwater was not invited, while President Lyndon B. Johnson was. In 1984, incumbent Ronald Reagan spoke, but his opponent, Walter Mondale, didn’t, saying he needed time to prepare for an upcoming debate. He might have had 1980 in mind: that year, Jimmy Carter was booed by the crowd, probably due to his stance on abortion.
- In 1996 and 2004, the Archdiocese of New York chose not to invite the presidential candidates. In 1996, this was reportedly because Cardinal John J. O’Connor was angry at Democratic nominee Bill Clinton for vetoing a bill outlawing partial-birth abortion. The vice-presidential candidates spoke instead. In 2004, an archdiocese spokesman explained that the candidates were not invited because “the issues in this year’s campaign could provoke division and disagreement.” Some observers speculated that the decision was due to Democratic nominee (and Catholic) John Kerry’s pro-abortion stance.
- Aside from Bill Clinton, the only other president not to have addressed the dinner was Harry S. Truman.
- JFK spoke two years in a row—in 1959 as a senator, then the next year as a presidential candidate.
- When Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton spoke in 2016, the dinner raised a record $6 million.
- Other keynote speakers, besides presidential candidates, have included two British prime ministers (Winston Churchill and Tony Blair), several Vice Presidents and Secretaries of State, First Ladies (Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush), one king (Umberto of Italy), one U.N. Secretary General (Kurt Waldheim) and several television personalities.
- Stephen Colbert was not the first comedian to speak at the Smith Dinner, when he keynoted the affair in 2013. He was preceded by Bob Hope in 1970.
- The dinner was always held at the prestigious Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, but after the Anbang Insurance Group of China purchased the legendary hotel for $1.95 billion, the company announced that it would close the hotel for a three-year renovation. Until the Smith Dinner can return to its longstanding venue, it is being held at the New York Hilton Midtown.
- Like other American traditions—Election Day on the first Tuesday of November, Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November—the Al Smith dinner is always held on the third Thursday of October.
- The Al Smith Dinner was featured in a 2005 episode of The West Wing. As two fictional presidential candidates waited to be introduced at the dinner, they made a deal for a final debate right before Election Day.
- Next year’s dinner, the 75th, will take place in the final days of the 2020 presidential campaign. This week, as guests sit down at their tables, there’s sure to be plenty of speculation about who the two main speakers will be.