Gen. Mattis Reflects on Al Smith’s Legacy Of Helping Children in ‘Greatest Country’

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"This is the moment for an act of remembrance—remembrance of the core principles we used to know and live by, and that we now seem to have forgotten.”

So said the former U.S. secretary of defense, retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, in delivering the keynote address at the 74th annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner Oct. 17.

America, he added, “is an ongoing experiment for which all of us bear responsibility, including a responsibility to repair.”

The foundational virtue of democracy, Mattis said, is trust, “not trust in one’s own rectitude or opinion,” but “trust in a capacity of collective deliberation to move us forward.”

Cynicism, which he said has infected Western democracies, is not realism, but rather “cowardice” and “a form of surrender.”

“We proclaim what divides us and seldom even acknowledge what unites us. Meanwhile, the roster of urgent national issues” has continued to grow unaddressed “and, given the paralysis, impossible to address. And all of this was approaching a level of crisis even before the specter of impeachment arose.”

In another nod to current events, Mattis said all who fight for liberty are owed a debt, “including those who tonight serve in the far corners of our planet, among them the American men and women supporting our Kurdish allies.” The attendees responded with applause.

More than 1,000 gathered in the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton Midtown in Manhattan, raising over $5.2 million. The foundation supports charities and educational institutions devoted to serving the children of New York who are most in need.

The dinner is dedicated to the memory of Alfred E. Smith, a four-term governor of New York who in 1928 became the first Catholic to be nominated by a major political party as the Democratic candidate for president of the United States.

It honors a cause that transcends political rhetoric and exemplifies the vision of Smith, who was known as “The Happy Warrior” for his ability to maintain a positive outlook as he tackled the pressing social issues of his time.

Mattis reflected on the legacy of Smith, “showing affection to the children as they are helped into adulthood in what remains the greatest country, most promising country, most wonderful country on Earth, and our responsibility to that generation.”

Presided over by the Archbishop of New York, keynote speakers often share self-deprecating humor as well as timely messages about the moral imperative of the foundation’s mission.

Mattis, who left the administration as secretary of defense last December, amusedly referenced the title “overrated general,” which President Donald Trump reportedly described him as in Washington, D.C., the day before. Gen. Mattis quipped, “I do stand before you,” he told the dinner guests, “really having achieved greatness…I’m not just an overrated general, I am the greatest, the world’s most overrated…”

Cardinal Dolan, chair of the Smith Memorial Foundation, offered the invocation and opening remarks.

“Dear Jesus, we come together in your name, on behalf of women and kids in need, in friendship, joy, love of God and country, grateful to be part of a 74-year-old tradition of the Al Smith Dinner.”

On the dais were former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; Gov. Andrew Cuomo; New York State Attorney General Letitia James; Mayor Bill de Blasio; FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro; Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand; former Mayors Michael Bloomberg and David Dinkins, and former NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly; retired Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Walsh and Msgr. Joseph LaMorte, vicar general and moderator of the curia for the archdiocese.

“And all of you this evening, over a thousand strong,” said the cardinal, “who have contributed…a record, over $5.2 million to one of the most effective benevolent foundations in our city—the largest crowd, the biggest tally, in an off-election year.”

Martin Short, the master of ceremonies, acknowledged the diverse audience, which he described in jest as “Catholics and lapsed Catholics.”

Short introduced Mary Callahan Erdoes, vice chair of the Smith Foundation, who welcomed to the podium Mary Ann Tighe, recipient of the Happy Warrior Award. “Let’s get Mary up here so she can introduce another Mary—how Catholic could this dinner be?” Short joked.

Ms. Tighe, CEO of the New York Tri-State Region of CBRE, a commercial real estate services firm, is the first woman to receive the award. The New York native spoke highly of the Catholic education she received at parochial elementary school in the South Bronx and Cardinal Spellman High School.

“At school and at home, I learned the value of hard work, the importance of kindness, of loving your neighbor. Which meant I was perfectly prepared for a career in New York City commercial real estate,” Ms. Tighe quipped.

She acknowledged the women religious present, in particular, the Sisters of Charity, the order that taught her, and singled out her high school classmate, Sister Donna Dodge, S.C., president of the Sisters of Charity.

“If I’m worthy of the title ‘Happy Warrior,’ it’s only because of the values and the commitment to purpose that these sisters instilled in me through their words and deeds.”

Ms. Tighe is a trustee of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In 1982 she co-founded the Scarangello Scholarship program at Cardinal Spellman High. It honors the memory of her parents by providing a Catholic high school education to six students at the school each year. She also funds scholarships at SS. Peter and Paul School, her grade school, through the Inner-City Scholarship Fund.

Mattis, in his keynote address, acknowledged the proximity of the dinner to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where his parents were married in 1946. He said he had no doubt that they would have been as surprised as he was when Cardinal Dolan called to ask him to speak “at this august event.”

“Their first question,” he mused, “would have been, ‘So what did he do?’ followed shortly by, ‘10 Hail Marys are not sufficient; throw the book at him.’”

Archbishop Bernardito C. Auza, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, delivered the Benediction.

The National Anthem was sung by Ailyn Pérez, a soprano from the Metropolitan Opera.

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