Thursday, October 20, 2016

In Catholic Gotham, The Final Showdown

SVILUPPO (10.30pm): Going into tonight's Al Smith Dinner, last week's Wikileaks claimed release of emails written by top aides to Hillary Clinton seeking a "Catholic Spring" and bashing church conservatives – and the fury the disclosures wrought from leading prelates (tonight's host included) – became just the latest hurdle in a relationship between the hierarchy and the Democratic nominee that, over some two decades, could be described as "difficult" or "chilly" at best.

Yet even as the story and tonight's keynote at New York Catholicism's premier social fund-raiser provided an opening for the Republican nominee to burnish his own bona fides with the nation's largest religious body – all the more after a clash with the Pope over his signature issue – Donald Trump's venture away from humor to charge that his opponent was "pretending to not hate Catholics" and "is so corrupt" turned the usual lightly-barbed, apolitical jokefest into something of a horror show, as the Waldorf-Astoria Ballroom erupted in a degree of boos and heckling at the GOP candidate unknown in the evening's recent memory.

While Clinton responded with a less adversarial tone, subtler digs – and an effusive tribute to "the Holy Father, Pope Francis" – the Democrat's roast still carried considerably more edge than prior editions of these joint appearances, reflecting the mutual animosity of a torrid campaign which has repeatedly pushed the limits of even the strained atmosphere ever present in the final weeks of the Making of a President.

On the bright side, the evening raised a record $6 million for Catholic Charities in the nation's second-largest diocese, and – unlike at the night's start – ended in a quick handshake between the contenders, albeit with their arms extended at fullest distance...

...for its cost, however, as a visibly anxious Cardinal Timothy Dolan repeatedly wiped his brow with his dinner napkin, here's fullvid of both candidates' remarks and the host's closing reflection:

With 18 days remaining until the election – and early voting already underway in more than a dozen states – a national poll released last week showed Clinton with a 20-point lead among Catholics, the margin fueled by a massive advantage for the Democrat among Latinos and a rare near-split of the Anglo pewfolk, who usually tend to lean Republican.

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7.30pm ET – Much as it's a common lament among church-folk that religion has lost its place in the center of the public square, that'll be anything but true tonight, just as it always is on the third Thursday in October every four years.

Of course, that can only mean one thing: the venerable Al Smith Dinner at New York's Waldorf-Astoria, where the tradition begun in 1960 continues on as both nominees for the presidency make their final joint appearance of the campaign at the annual Catholic Charities fundraiser begun to honor the first of the faithful ever nominated to the top of a national ticket.

Yet with three weeks to go in an electoral slog that's reached monumental levels of bitterness, hysteria and polarization – and both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton playing before an accordingly charged hometown crowd – as with so much else over the last 18 months, the usual lightheartedness of the evening can't be taken for granted. If anything, with the candidates placed at the center of the white tie-wearing, multi-tiered dais on the stage of the Waldorf's Ballroom, then taking turns in delivering roast-style speeches, Cardinal Timothy Dolan's probably musing that he shouldn't have lost so much weight over the last year: as the dinner's head honcho, he'll be the only thing separating Clinton and Trump for some 90 minutes, a task which will draw upon every ounce of the famously gregarious prelate's "ultimate host" skill-set.

A church historian by trade, Dolan has been an especially dedicated custodian of the quadrennial rite begun by Francis Cardinal Spellman with John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Even if there was never any question on his end that this most gobsmacking of cycles would wrap up as it (almost) always has since, this night alone has the makings of an epic chapter in an eventual memoir – and despite the Tenth Archbishop's well-burnished reputation as a human equivalent of Bernini's Colonnade, pulling it off without incident remains no small feat.

More to come.