At mighty events, little happenings can take on major life, as I was reminded on Thursday evening when I found my pants falling off. I was talking to a stranger dressed in white tie and tails, which was the uniform for dais guests. He beckoned to his wife, who quickly came and extended a maternal hand to my trousers at hip level. “That’s exactly what happened to Bill at our son’s wedding last week,” she said, endeavoring a cure.
The bustling room full of prominent guests at the 61st Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria busied themselves with animated conversation about other things than unruly pants.
Dr. Kissinger was talking, and was talked to. Before long Governor Pataki materialized, as did Senators Schumer and Hillary. We learned early on that Cardinal Egan, the host, was forbidden by his doctors to climb the steps necessary to ascend to the throne at the dais, from which to address the 800 guests whose $1,000 contributions sustain so much of the health care undertaken by the archdiocese of New York.
There is a special snap to the Al Smith Dinner because it has for many years served as a required stop for anyone seeking to be president of the United States. The political heft of the Catholic Church in New York is reflected in the allure of the evening’s speaker. Only exceptionally is there more than one speaker. In 1947 there were two: James V. Forrestal and Winston S. Churchill. In 1960 there was high excitement at the dinner featuring John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, three weeks before Kennedy was elected president. In 1968 the card was truly comprehensive: President Lyndon Johnson and two contenders for his office, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. On my right that night was New York earthshaker Robert Moses. After Humphrey sat down, over-extending by twenty minutes the ten minutes he had been allotted, Mr. Moses leaned over to me with a whispered question: “What comes after a Saturday night speech by Hubert Humphrey?” My eyes betrayed that I didn’t have the answer. Moses smiled and said, “Sunday.”
The speaker on Thursday was NBC newscaster Brian Williams, but things were not going smoothly that night. I lost my pants, the cardinal couldn’t climb up the stairs, and, as the assembly waited for Brian Williams to declare his candidacy for president, there was commotion at the end of the long dais. A guest had fainted. Doctor Adler on my right, the health czar of the archdiocese, walked quickly to the other end of the dais to tend to Senator John Marchi, the perennial New York legislator who was undoubtedly a guest the night Winston Churchill spoke, and who succeeded me as Conservative Party candidate for mayor of New York. His trouble was fleeting, but the rhythm of the evening was broken, and Brian Williams never did come out with his platform for the presidency.
Many guests were there with lesser concerns. My own centered on my recalcitrant trousers. The chief steward of the hotel had asked a tall bishop at the other end of the room if by chance he had come with an extra belt in hand. The answer of Bishop Gerald Walsh was that yes, indeed he had: his own belt was no longer critical to maintaining his pants at the requisite altitude. So, across the room the episcopal belt made its way to me. It wouldn’t tighten far enough and I asked someone I thought a hotel steward if he could contrive to puncture a hole an inch further up. He came back in a few minutes with the fresh hole, and identified himself as the eye surgeon of the cardinal.
I donned the belt to shore up my situation, and got a lecture from a guest who tore himself away from Henry Kissinger to say to me, “Try suspenders” — which I have promised to do before I am dispatched to one of the nursing homes so caringly looked after on behalf of people who, earlier in life, have celebrated Al Smith’s birthday by buying a ticket to the annual affair at the Waldorf.