Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Dinner a show of who's in charge in politics

By Errol Louis, Special to CNN
October 19, 2012 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Errol Louis: Obama, Romney jokes at Al Smith dinner a balm in a fractious campaign
  • But dinner is really a show of political clout and continuity in nation's institutions, he says
  • He says movers and shakers, past and present, on hand show who's really in charge

Editor's note: Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York City all-news channel.

(CNN) -- Mitt Romney and President Obama's good-natured exchange of jokes at the 2012 Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner Thursday night renewed a fine American tradition of applying the balm of laughter to the bitterness of politics.

Every year, a tuxedo-clad cross-section of the nation's political and economic elites gather at the swank Waldorf-Astoria hotel, paying top dollar to raise money for the local charitable work of the Catholic Church.

But this is in many ways a secondary goal. Over the decades, the dinner has become a ritual of reassurance -- a public statement that the nation's most important economic, political and religious institutions are in the hands of people of steady judgment, solid character and good faith.

Errol Louis
Errol Louis

Onscreen, as Romney and Obama delivered their zingers, television viewers saw the main speaker framed by two white-haired men -- one younger, one older -- laughing on the dais behind the podium. Most probably could not name the two men, but their presence speaks volumes about the dinner.

To the left was Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. His father, the late Cyrus Vance, had a storied career as one of the wise men of Washington, a confidant of presidents who was quietly dispatched to trouble spots from riot-torn Detroit to the negotiating table in Vietnam and Korea. He served as secretary of the Army and secretary of State.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



To the right was Howard Rubenstein, a public relations mogul whose client list has included Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, Time, Inc., the Yankees, the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. A magazine profile of Rubenstein -- a confidant of New York's last six mayors, four governors and presidents reaching back to Harry Truman -- describes him as "ubiquitous, trusted, a kind of gentle fixer for those who run New York: its governments and newspapers, its cultural institutions, boardrooms, and sports teams."

That is what the Al Smith Dinner is about: The connection and continuity of the nation's leaders. It's no coincidence that Obama and Romney both tossed verbal bouquets to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, joking that Cuomo, like Romney, is the son of a governor who hopes to ascend to higher office.

Summers defends Obama's economic plan
Obama wins debate, loses on economy
Zingers from second presidential debate

Presiding over it all were Cardinal Timothy Dolan, a prince of the church who flew directly from a conclave at the Vatican to host the dinner, and Al Smith IV, the great-grandson of Al Smith, the New York governor who became the first Catholic major-party nominee for president.

It was all in good fun, for the benefit of a nation bedeviled by a sluggish economy, political gridlock and scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church --and that could use a few chuckles these days. The closing weeks of the presidential campaign have been marked by slashing attacks and accusations of dishonesty by both candidates.

But even the story of Al Smith, the dinner's namesake, has a touch of tragedy to it. His 1928 campaign was marred by religious bigotry, and his swings through the Deep South were greeted by Ku Klux Klan cross burnings.

For one night, though, the problems and divisions were put aside at the Waldof. Wall Street titans, reviled after the economic crash in 2009, sat side-by-side with some of their fiercest media critics. Obama and Romney praised each other as good family men. And this year's haul, estimated at a record-breaking $5 million, will pay for a wide range of programs for the ill, the elderly and the poor in and around New York City.

Catholics now make up nearly a quarter of the electorate, and in 2012, for the first time, both vice presidential candidates are Catholic. Which means the spirit of Al Smith got the last and best laugh of all.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Errol Louis

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT