Tuesday, September 18, 2007

TB's Coming-Out Party?

For veteran readers of these pages, the longtime buzz surrounding the oft-floated conversion of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is no secret. Many will recall that the years of "Will he or won't he?" reached their peak in June, as Blair took the final major meeting of his decade-long premiership at the Vatican with none other than the Pope.

Following Blair's departure from No. 10 and handover to his longtime heir, Gordon Brown, the conversion chatter died down as the ex-PM took an appointment as an international Mideast envoy and dropped off the radar for an extended holiday. The tongues are, however, wagging again on both sides of the Pond in recent weeks as it's come to light that TB's first major appearance since leaving office will take place next month...

...when he delivers the main address at American Catholicism's most famous meal -- the annual Al Smith Dinner in New York.

No kidding.

Officially speaking, the Smith Dinner is an annual fund-raiser for Catholic Charities of the archdiocese of New York. Given its proximity to Election Day, however, and in testament to the historic clout of the heads of the nation's most prominent see, the white-tie, $1,000-a-plate event has long been a magnet for Gotham's political, financial and media circles... but especially the political; in both 1960 and 2000, the reigning archbishop was flanked by both presidential nominees on the traditional multi-tier dais. On both occasions, the evening at the Waldorf-Astoria would be the only time during the campaign's home stretch that the contenders met up for reasons other than a presidential debate.

While, to a degree, the high-profile choice of speaker reflects that this year's Al Smith is expected to be Cardinal Edward Egan's last as archbishop of New York, there's also a historic thread to the selection: 60 years ago next month, the first dinner honoring Smith -- the son of the downtown tenements who became the first Catholic nominee for the White House -- was addressed by the once and future occupant of Downing Street, Winston Churchill.

Back in the UK, notice of Blair's slated appearance made the pages of The Tablet, and the Mail on Sunday called it "a straw in the wind" of the ex-PM's Tiber-swimming. Born an Anglican and still (at least, publicly) a member of the church of England, Catholic New York noted that Blair "has shown an interest in the Catholic church."

Whether he reveals more than an interest on the dais remains to be seen... but the surprise would almost be greater if he didn't.

Phillip Riley/Riley Photos