‘Neither pity us nor praise us. Stand by us,” the man in uniform said.
The Alfred E. Smith dinner is traditionally the big Waldorf Astoria roast night for wealthy and high-ranking Catholics and other Big Apple stars. But on Thursday night on Park Avenue this year, it was a plea and a witness to keep with it. “It” being the Americaone Frenchman loved. The one where “the Americans combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other.” The one where “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” The one where, on our best nights, we know that “when the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.”
This year’s dinner — which is a fundraiser for health-care programs in the Catholic archdiocese of New York — honored the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of StMike Mullen,who joined a lineup that through the years has included presidents, almost-presidents, prime ministers (including Winston Churchill by phone in 1947), and other assorted luminaries from Bill Bennett to Bob Hope.
Admiral Mullen is a serious man, and the night reflected it. He threw some barbs at the sparklingly glamorous Katie Couric, at Fox News, and at New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg (all present — Fox in the person of Roger Ailes). He made some cheap jokes about not making a cheap joke. But, ultimately and throughout, Mullen had a serious point to make: With an appropriately biting “thank you, Bob Woodward,” while being light but clear in talking about General McChrystal’s Afghanistan report that wound up in the Washington Post, Mullen talked about the “sanctity of the chain of command” and the importance of preserving it. He noted that unlike the commentariat, he gives his advice “in private,” out of duty and respect for the civilian leadership of the military.
And then, without missing a beat, he told us to check his Facebook page because “it’s all there.”
Admiral Mullen was movingly, bleedingly clear: “We are engaged in two wars.” He said: “It is right . . . that we question ourselves and our assumptions.” He said: “Many don’t support the war in Afghanistan. Let’s have that debate.” Recalling coffins of “heroes” coming back home via Dover, hospital beds, and “the stark, white headstones” at Arlington cemetery, he said it is our obligation “to make sure that sacrifice isn’t in vain.” Sending our best and brightest off to possible death should be a struggle, he said. But while doing so, remember: “They believe in what they are doing. Continue to believe in them.” Reach out to their families. “Watch over them,” he said, “in a sea of good will.”
The dinner was what social life should be. It was an elevation. Our better angels were present on this night named for one “happy warrior” — “a man whose memory,” New York archbishop Timothy Dolan said, “still evokes a smile.” This effusive St. Louis native, now sitting in the most prominent pulpit in America, recalled watching the Alfred E. Smith dinner as a young boy on The Huntley-Brinkley Report. If you are of a certain age, you likely did too.
The 2009 Alfred E. Smith Dinner was an elevation in a more concrete sense: It was better than last year’s. Every presidential-election year, these dinners tend to become national events, and last year was no exception. Both Barack Obama and John McCain attended, and fully participated in the roasting. The cardinal laughed. And, somehow, in the mix of replays and YouTubes and the New York Times cover the next morning, the sum-total takeaway seemed to be: These moral issues aren’t all that serious. There was the Church, in the person of its local leader, yukking it up with a candidate, now president, for whom legal abortion is a moral cause — so much so that one of his first acts (predictably) was to expand access, as they say, by repealing the Mexico City Policy prohibiting federal funding for abortions overseas. While that may not be a fair representation of the entire 2008 Alfred E. Smith Dinner night, it is nonetheless true — and truly damaging. Last year’s dinner gave the appearance of a moral abdication. (In 1996, by contrast, the now-late John Cardinal O’Connor refused an invitation to Pres. Bill Clinton after he vetoed a federal ban on partial-birth abortion.)
In another contrast with last year, the working-press presence was only a sidebar. But Thursday night in the grand ballroom was, in fact, grand. Rich in beauty — and not just the beautiful gowns and handsomely attired men.
It was a beautiful scene when former New York City mayor Ed Koch, so beloved by Cardinal O’Connor, interacted with dinner guests and passing New Yorkers outside the hotel after the dinner. So distinguished in his white tie, he approached the TV personality, the autograph seeker, and the guy who just wanted to shake his hand in recognition of his service with the same brotherly warmth. This is what the night was about. People talk an awful lot about “civility” — so much so that it has become close to meaningless. But you know it when you see it. And this was it.
Religion didn’t adapt itself in the presence of the secular and civic stars at the Waldorf Thursday night. It was itself, proudly and humbly, even in its formal grandeur. There was an undeniable, unmistakable edifying synergy at this event — of the kind our Founding Fathers knew that we non-angels needed. May no dark wall ever tear this marriage asunder.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its inital posting.span>