The 74th Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner was held last night at the Hilton Hotel with cocktails beginning at 6 PM. The first gala dates back to 1945 when Secretary of State James F. Byrnes spoke. He was in good company as later honorees have included Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Bob Hope, and John Kennedy.
Last year Nikki Haley wowed the audience in an off-the-shoulder sequined gown dressing like an Academy Award recipient as opposed to a recently retired government appointee. This is the premier political dinner of the year in New York, which fundraises for Catholic charities for underprivileged children. Gathering 1,000 people comprised of clergy members, journalists, politicians, and business titans for an evening of roasts, fraternization, and dinner is its hallmark.
Another signature element is the unrivaled prominence of participants on the dais, which this year included James Tisch, William Rudin, Mike Bloomberg, Ray Kelly, Andrew Cuomo, Chuck Schumer, Sen. Gillibrand, Bill de Blasio, and Henry Kissinger. The person who received the greatest applause was Kissinger, as opposed to de Blasio, who was generously booed.
One of the main attractions of the evening is the opportunity to socialize with a select group of luminaries starting at the cocktail party, continuing throughout the dinner, and concluding at the bar of the Hilton. There are a couple of ways to gain access to this exclusive affair: you can either be a journalist, a prominent political or social figure, part of the clergy or pay $3,000 per ticket – some significant hurdles to overcome.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who presides over the evening, is a well-liked fixture in New York currently serving as Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Pro-Life Activities Committee and amongst the conclave that elected Pope Francis in 2013.
I can remember dreaming of attending this dinner, which used to reside at the currently shuttered Waldorf as hundreds of suits would enthusiastically stream by after having experienced a once-in-a-lifetime night. This happening has progressively welcomed more women to both the dais and audience, as evidenced by conferring the “Happy Warrior Award” to mega commercial real estate broker Mary Ann Tighe. She joined emcee and comedian Martin Short and General Mattis in a night of informed political entertainment full of surprisingly targeted attacks against the current administration.
Metropolitan Opera soprano Ailyn Perez started off the festivities with a smashing rendition of the National Anthem, which was followed by a convocation. Then came the entertaining part of the night as Martin Short regaled the audience with his comedy that was clever, gutsy, appropriate, and, most importantly, funny.
He began with “ladies and gentlemen and various whistleblowers, thanks for the sitting ovation. I will make this brief since I left my uber driver waiting, and you know how testy Rudy Giuliani can get”- encapsulating the current environment in two sentences. He welcomed Catholics and “lapsed Catholics” as well as “the most powerful elected officials plus Bill de Blasio.”
He then joked that while he rarely thinks of Chuck Schumer when he does, prominent Catholic is the first thing that comes to mind. He reminisced about the 2016 dinner remarking to roaring laughter that, in retrospect, Hillary should have skipped that night and campaigned in Wisconsin instead. He praised Bernie Sanders, who he said looks like a used tissue that has sprung to life.
The biggest laughs of the evening came when he remarked Biden is trying so hard to be inclusive that he thinks “Soy milk” is Spanish for “I am milk.” He mocked Donald Trump by saying Colonel Sanders from Kentucky Fried Chicken was the only military man in his life and that 2 years in his administration was equivalent to 7.
He introduced the head of JP Morgan Asset Management Mary Erdoes to present the Happy Warrior Award to Mary Ann Tighe, remarking that “Mary introducing another Mary” is about as Catholic as it gets.
This year highlighted the contribution of women, in particular, Mary Ann Tighe, CEO of the New York Tri-State Region of CBRE, who has broken more records than Tom Brady, including winning the Deal of the Year Award 9 years in a row. Tighe, who was raised in the South Bronx and attended Catholic School for two decades, has leased over 115 million square feet of commercial space and helped get New York back on its feet after 9/11 by being the first to rent space at the World Trade Center.
Tighe alluded to de Blasio when she said: “a real New Yorker spends time on the streets of Des Moines.” Speaking at the dinner was so nerve-wracking that Tighe said she asked herself, ‘What would Jesus do?” She ultimately concluded he would have invited 12 of his Jewish friends. She ended by saying the nuns who instilled values and commitment were the true warriors of the night.
Another famous warrior, General Mattis, former Secretary of Defense and “former” friend of Donald Trump, who has served over 40 years in the Marine Corps, took a surprising negative turn against the president. Trump can’t seem to catch a break as one administration member after another vocally turns on him after they leave his employ. Mattis called himself the “Meryl Streep of Generals” as the president had critiqued both as being overrated – him as a general she as an actress.
The General said that he didn’t realize how easy the battlefield was until working in Washington. The last time wearing a tuxedo was at a public cremation – assuring his next door seatmate it was washed since. He said he was less of a mad dog and more of an emotional support animal, which allowed him to fly for free.
He continually disparaged the president, remarking that [he] “had earned his spurs on the battlefield” while the president had gotten his from the doctor and that Washington was at a near crisis level even before impeachment proceedings began with an unprecedented level of disunity and divide. He urged the U.S. to support the Kurds and concluded by calling attention to the work of the Al Smith foundation.
Mattis received a lengthy standing ovation that left him close to tears as the evening ended at 9:30 PM. Martin Short concluded by remarking “better to have loved a Short than never to have loved a-tall”- a sentiment I could not be more in agreement with.