NEW YORK - As headliners for a glittering event that raised
$5 million for Catholic health care programs in the
Archdiocese of New York, President Barack Obama and former
Gov. Mitt Romney briefly suspended their vociferous campaign
rhetoric to exchange humorous jibes Oct. 18 at the 67th
annual dinner of the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation.
The host of the event, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York
was seated on the four-tiered between. They faced more than
1,640 formally attired donors who filled the Grand Ballroom
of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and its two balconies.
By tradition, speakers poke fun at themselves, one another
and various prominent guests, without inflicting wounds. This
does not preclude delivering a serious message with a smile.
Cardinal Dolan was criticized for inviting Obama because of
his administration's mandate requiring most Catholic
employers, like other employers, to provide free
contraceptive coverage for employees over the church's moral
objections. The church considers the mandate, currently being
challenged in federal court, a threat to religious freedom.
But the cardinal managed to land a few direct punches that
were met with appreciative applause.
He said the annual dinner shows the United States and the
Catholic Church at their best.
"Here we are in an atmosphere of civility and humor hosted,
fittingly, by a church that claims that joy is the infallible
sign of God's presence," he said.
"We are grateful to be people of faith and loyal Americans,
loving a country which considers religious liberty our first
and most cherished freedom, convinced that faith is not just
limited to an hour of Sabbath worship, but affects everything
we do or dare and dream."
He said the dinner's namesake, Al Smith, believed that
government should partner "with family, church, parish,
neighborhood organizations and community, never intruding or
opposing, since, when all is said and done, in God we trust,
not in government or politics."
The Al Smith dinner honors the memory of the former governor
of New York, who was raised in poverty and was the first
Catholic nominated by a major political party to run for
president of the United States in 1928.
Cardinal Dolan said Al Smith was "a man of deep Catholic
faith and ringing patriotism, who had a tear in his Irish eye
for what we would call 'uns,'" whom the cardinal described as
including the unemployed, uninsured, unwanted, unwed mothers,
unborn, undocumented, unhoused, unhealthy, unfed and
He said both candidates' political parties claim to be "big
tents containing extraordinarily diverse, even contrary,
opposing people and groups. He quipped, "You don't have
anything on the Catholic Church. We got both Biden and Ryan."
In an historic first, both parties nominated Catholics as
vice presidential candidates, Democrat Joe Biden and
Republican Paul Ryan.
Cardinal Dolan said Romney and Obama are "two honorable men
called to the vocation of public service whose love for God
and country is surpassed only by their love for their wives
Romney joked that he prepared for the debates by refraining
from drinking alcohol for 65 years and finding "the biggest
available straw man to attack." He deadpanned, "Big Bird
didn't even see it coming. In the spirit of Sesame Street,
President Obama's remarks are brought to you by the letter
'O' and number 16 trillion."
Romney said Obama put his own stamp on relations with the
Catholic Church by advising Pope Benedict XVI: "Look Holy
Father, whatever the problem is, just blame it on Pope John
Paul II." He suggested the media favored Obama in its
coverage, and imagined the headlines from the Al Smith dinner
as "Obama embraced by Catholics; Romney dines with rich
To sustained applause, Romney said the Al Smith foundation
and the Archdiocese of New York "answer with calm and willing
hearts and service to the poor, care for the sick, in defense
of the rights of conscience and in solidarity with the
innocent children waiting to be born. You can be certain in
the great causes of compassion that you come to embrace, that
I stand proudly with you as an ally and friend."
Obama made light of his lackluster performance at the first
presidential debate, where he said he had "a nice, long nap"
that left him well-rested. "Although it turns out millions of
Americans focused in on the second debate who didn't focus in
on the first debate - and I happen to be one of them."
The president said the dinner was an occasion to focus on
what he and Romney have in common, "beginning with our
unusual names. Actually, Mitt is his middle name." He paused
and added, "I wish I could use my middle name."
Describing the upcoming third debate, Obama said he and
Romney would discuss foreign policy. "Spoiler alert: We got
bin Laden," he said to both laughter and applause. Obama
called attention to his opponent's gaffes at the Olympic
Games in England. "After my foreign trip in 2008, I was
attacked as a celebrity because I was so popular with our
allies overseas. And I have to say, I'm impressed with how
well Governor Romney has avoided that problem."
Obama acknowledged the "extraordinary work that is done by
the Catholic Church" and said the perseverance and character
of ordinary Americans have brought the country through some
very tough years.
Both candidates lauded their opponent as a dedicated family
man and loving father.
Alfred E. Smith IV, Al Smith's great-grandson marked his 25th
year as the event's master of ceremonies. He delivered
pointed barbs about both candidates, saying the foundation
was not quite as happy to welcome Obama as it was four years
ago and remarking that Romney considered his white-tie outfit
to be "business casual."
Smith said the Catholic Church owed a debt of gratitude to
Obama. Citing Jesus' teaching that it is easier for a camel
to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man
to enter the kingdom of heaven, Smith said because of the
current economy, "it's going to be a lot easier for a lot
more people to get into heaven."
Patrons of the dinner enjoyed poached lobster tail and
roasted rack of lamb. Tickets for 2012 event started at
$2,500. The proceeds support Catholic health care programs.
Grants totaling $2 million were distributed to 12
organizations serving children in the archdiocese after the