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Moderator Chris Wallace, of FOX News, turns towards the audience as he questions Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)  

Editor's Note: Our intrepid national correspondent Michael O'Loughlin will be observing the fun at the Al Smith dinner on Oct. 20, so look for a report from him that evening. In the meantime, here's some background on the annual charity event hosted by the Archdiocese of New York from Religion News Service:

This has been an unconventional election by almost any measure, with both candidates garnering record high negatives from the voters and political newcomer Donald Trump—a real estate and casino mogul—lowering the bar on almost every previous standard of acceptable campaign rhetoric.

But the Catholic Church likes nothing better than to stick with tradition, and so Trump, the Republican nominee, and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, will be headlining the glitzy Al Smith Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan on Oct. 20 to trade jokes (hopefully) rather than barbs in a custom that goes back more than 70 years.

“The presidential nominees will share the dais with Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, and they will deliver the evening’s speeches in the spirit of collegiality and good-humor that has become a hallmark of the gala,” said a statement issued on Sept. 27 by the New York Archdiocese and the foundation that runs the event.

The Oct. 20 dinner "honors a cause that transcends the polarizing political rhetoric of the day and exemplifies the vision of Gov. Alfred E. Smith, known as 'The Happy Warrior' for his ability to maintain his positive outlook even as he tackled the pressing social issues of his day," the statement said.

The dinner's namesake was the New York governor who in 1928 became the first Catholic nominee for president. Smith was known as a reformer and “man for the people,” but anti-Catholicism was still so virulent at the time and the pre-Depression economy of the 1920s roaring so fiercely that the Democrat was trounced by Republican Herbert Hoover.

A charitable foundation that takes his name was launched in 1946, two years after Smith’s death, and over the years its annual dinner has become “a ritual of American politics,” as historian Theodore H. White put it, where candidates of opposing parties would come together for a few hours of comic relief at the height of an intense campaign battle.

But the white-tie dinner itself has not been free of controversy, especially for its host. Dolan, for example, was excoriated by conservative Catholics in 2012 when he continued the tradition by inviting President Obama, whose stance in support of abortion rights and other issues outraged some.

There was some precedent for Dolan to punt on an invitation to Obama: In 1996, then-Cardinal John O’Connor did not invite either of that year's candidates because he did not want to give President Bill Clinton, an abortion rights supporter who was running for re-election, a church-sponsored platform that tends to show the candidates in a flattering light.

And in 2004, then-Cardinal Edward Egan did not invite either candidate, President George W. Bush or his challenger Democratic nominee, John Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights.

But Dolan is an outgoing personality who tends to prefer engagement to picking fights, and he also enjoys an evening that can showcase his own deft talent for quips.

Four years ago, Dolan defended himself from the critics, saying the dinner is a time for civility, engagement and dialogue -- and raises money for needy children.

“Those who started the dinner 67 years ago believed that you can accomplish a lot more by inviting folks of different political loyalties to an uplifting evening, rather than in closing the door to them,” Dolan wrote at the time.

He added that he believed he was also following the example of Jesus, “who was blistered by his critics for dining with those some considered sinners; and by the recognition that, if I only sat down with people who agreed with me, and I with them, or with those who were saints, I’d be taking all my meals alone.”

Whether Dolan will be criticized again this year, or in the same way, remains to be seen. The real interest may be on how the candidates comport themselves.

Trump has upended conventional Republican politics, especially its family values agenda: He is a thrice-married businessman with a legacy as a playboy and someone who has supported abortion rights and gay rights. He has made headlines by insulting ethnic and religious minorities, women and the handicapped, among others.

While Trump has said he will oppose abortion as president, many remain dubious, and some of his other statements have upset Catholic leaders.

Trump has also shown himself to be relatively thin-skinned when it comes to criticism or teasing, which is unusual for a candidate for such a high office, where calumny and comedy are daily fare.

And if Clinton is not quite the tummler that other candidates have been, she has shown an ability to tweak Trump, as she did in the first of three presidential debates on Monday night.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
ed gleason
6 years 11 months ago
As I posted on the other tread: But it's embarrassing to see cardinal Dolan of NYC going along with the Al Smith dinner with white-tie monkey suited donors to honor Trump and Clinton.{and raise money for good works] The "GUESTS of honor will speak with cheap jokes by out of work comedians. SNL is good because they know that their show is a farce. The Al Smith dinner is not supposed to be a silly farce. Trump will likely bring a few embarrassing guests, maybe a couple of SF's Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in drag costume .. PHEW. To not invite John Kerry in 2004 and invite Trump now is embarrassingly stupid..I predict there is not one laugh in this whole event. except people who disrespect Catholicism laughing up their sleeves.
William Rydberg
6 years 11 months ago
Mr Gleason, Your Agenda is what it is. As for much of the rest of us, similar to the visit of Mr President Obama to Notre Dame, it can be understood as a mark of respect and acceptance of our Catholic Faith, which until not too long ago was seen as not worthy of acceptance in the Public Square. Not too long ago, prominent SCOTUS members did not hesitate to speak negatively of the Roman Catholic Church. Looking at it from another perspective. Could you even for a moment imagine Pope Francis acting unwelcoming to the President of the United States? By the end of next month, one will be the President-elect of the United States of America. A lot of Catholics have fought and died for the Republic for which it stands... God bless America, Home of the Brave. in Christ, a Canadian friend...
Vincent Gaglione
6 years 11 months ago
I reiterate here what I wrote to and was published in the New York Archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York. There was no significant USA Catholic voice raised to protest Trump's characterization of Pope Francis as "disgraceful." Posted elsewhere here, others have parsed his criticism as directed at Pope Francis' comments, not at the Pope. That is disingenuous. I recently wrote again to Catholic New York protesting the invitation to Trump for the Al Smith Dinner. It is one thing to engage with people whose political views are opposed to your own. It is another to engage those who deliberately and cavalierly disrespect the Pope, a behavior which is evident of disrespect for our faith community. To borrow and twist one of Trump's phrases from last night's debate, "Nasty man!"

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