Fewer Laughs, More Barbs From Presidential Candidates at Smith Dinner

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There were eyebrow-raising moments, along with some laughs and some boos, at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, the annual Catholic fund-raiser that’s a beloved tradition in New York during election season.

With warring presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as speakers in the final weeks of an unusually bitter campaign, the dinner’s tradition of light-hearted, humorous talks gave way early on to sharp-edged barbs and personal insults. Trump led the way, calling his opponent “corrupt” and a Catholic hater—remarks that drew loud boos and heckling from what is usually a courteous audience.

Mrs. Clinton, taking her turn, mocked the billionaire developer for his call for bans on Muslims and his suggestions that he would not accept the election results if he loses.

“It’s amazing I’m up here after Donald,” she said. “I didn’t think he’d be O.K. with a peaceful transition of power.”

Cardinal Dolan, as host of the Oct. 20 dinner, was seated between the two less than 24 hours after their final, contentious debate.

In closing remarks, he expressed gratitude to the dinner guests for supporting the Smith Foundation’s work, and said he also was grateful “to the Lord himself.”

In a television appearance the next morning, the cardinal said the candidates were surprisingly pleasant and courteous to one another before taking their place on the dais. He said was “very moved” by their attempts “to be courteous, to get along, to say nice things privately to one another.”

“The purpose of the evening is to break some of that ice, and thanks be to God, it works,” the cardinal said Oct. 21 on NBC’s “Today.”

The 71st annual Al Smith Dinner, a full-dress affair held as always in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria hotel, included among the more than 1,500 attendees an array of big-name political, business and media personalities.

With tickets starting at $3,000, the popular event raised a record $6 million for Catholic charitable agencies that help needy children and women in the archdiocese.

The dinner honors the legacy of Alfred E. Smith, a onetime New York governor who, as a Democrat in 1928, was the first Catholic to run for president on a major party ticket. He was known as a champion of working people and immigrants and earned the nickname “the Happy Warrior” for his friendly, open approach in political battlefields.

Alfred E. Smith IV, great-grandson of the dinner namesake and the evening’s master of ceremonies, said in welcoming remarks that his illustrious ancestor lost the election in 1928 “but made history in American politics.”

He said that in the spirit of his great-grandfather, dinner guests are called on to “put aside all politics, all acrimony.”

“We come together to raise money for the worthiest of causes: the neediest children of the archdiocese,” Smith said. “Tonight, we are all friends.”

In a sly reference to the three presidential debates, Smith added that he thought everyone was grateful “for a format in which nobody can interrupt anyone else.”

Trump, who spoke first, started off lightly, joking, for example, that Mrs. Clinton told him “if somehow she gets elected she wants me to be, without question, either ambassador to Iraq or Afghanistan—my choice,” referring to two of the world’s major trouble spots.

He also joked about the former secretary of state’s lucrative private speeches to Wall Street executives, saying, “This is the first time Hillary is sitting down and speaking to major corporate leaders and not getting paid for it.”

He was loudly booed, however, when he said, “Hillary is so corrupt she got kicked off the Watergate Commission” and “Hillary believes it’s vital to deceive the people by having one public policy and a totally different policy in private. For example, here she is tonight, in public, pretending not to hate Catholics.”

Trump apparently was referencing two hacked emails from 2011 sent to John Podesta, now Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager, that were critical of Catholics. Jennifer Palmieri, currently the campaign’s communications director, was also part of one of the email threads published by WikiLeaks.

(Earlier in the week, responding to a question by a reporter in Colorado, where he spoke at the Bishop’s Respect Life Dinner for the Diocese of Colorado Springs, Cardinal Dolan called the comments in the emails “extraordinarily insulting and patronizing to Catholics” and said he hoped Mrs. Clinton will “distance herself from these remarks by her chief of staff.”)

Trump closed his remarks with praise for the work of the Smith Foundation. “One thing we can all agree on is the need to support the great work that comes out of the dinner,” he said. “Millions of dollars have been raised to support disadvantaged children (providing) a critical lifeline for children in need.”

He also called on Americans to stand up against anti-Catholic bias, to support religious liberty and to celebrate life.

Mrs. Clinton’s remarks started lightly, too, with a joke about the Trump campaign’s theme that she lacks stamina to be president. “This is such an important event that I took a break from my rigorous nap schedule,” she said, adding in a remark noting the large number of guests from the corporate and finance worlds, “It’s a break for you too. Usually I charge a lot for speeches like this.”

She got in her share of barbs at her opponent, however.

Referring to Trump’s often-reported habit of “rating” women according to their looks, she said that immigrants and others who come to New York look at the Statue of Liberty and “see a proud symbol.”

“Donald looks at the Statue of Liberty and sees a 4,” she said.

She also took a shot at questions raised about whether Trump is as wealthy as he claims, saying, “It’s great to see Mayor Bloomberg here,” referring to the former New York mayor whose net worth is estimated at $36.5 billion.

“I’m sorry (Bloomberg’s) not speaking tonight,” Mrs. Clinton said. “I’m curious to hear what a billionaire has to say.”

Turning serious at the end of her talk, she said, “There’s nothing funny about the stakes in this election. In the end, what makes this dinner important is not the jokes we tell but the legacy we carry forward.”

Cardinal Dolan, in his prayer at the dinner’s close, reminded the guests of the “thousands of women and children” who will benefit from the dinner’s proceeds. He spoke of an African-American mother eager for a scholarship to get her children into a Catholic school, a troubled pregnant woman mother seeking the courage to have her baby and a Mexican immigrant mother approaching Catholic Charities for help in reuniting her family.

“None of these brave women could afford a ticket to this Al Smith Dinner, but they’re sure grateful you could, because as of tomorrow, thanks to all of you…$6 million will begin to flow out to lift them up,” he said.

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