Thursday, October 01, 2020

A Distanced Al Smith, With COVID At The Door

(1.20am ET – Updated with further developments.

Every fourth year, what's normally the third Thursday in October is always a moment to remember. But both in terms of its setting and the turmoil of a brutal campaign amid a crisis-ridden national scene, there's never been an Al Smith Dinner like this one.

Far from its usual home before a white-tie and ballgown-ed crowd at the Waldorf-Astoria in Midtown Manhattan before a crowd approaching 2,000, what was planned as a 50-person gathering in light of the ongoing pandemic was scrapped following concerns expressed by the New York state government. In its place, the ultimate church-state moment of six decades of presidential campaigns – by tradition, the nominees' lone joint appearance outside the debates – went all-virtual, with Cardinal Timothy Dolan performing livefeed "host" duties from his Madison Avenue residence.

Surreal as the context already was, it entered even more uncharted territory not long after – some five hours after President Trump used his remarks to declare that the end of COVID-19 "is in sight," the Republican contender announced just before 1am Eastern Friday that he and First Lady Melania Trump had contracted the virus. In that light, with the First Couple now set to be quarantined in the White House residence, Trump's pre-recorded remarks from Washington likely made for his last appearance for at least several days as the bruising campaign enters its home-stretch.

For the Democratic nominee's part, after days of strange silence by aides on whether he'd accept his invitation, Vice President Joe Biden's campaign only announced that he would participate an hour or so before the event took place. 

Named for the first Catholic nominated for the Presidency – whose faith saw him subjected to bigotry and suspicion in his 1928 run – while the Al Smith is customarily the candidates' final appearance, coming after their last debate, even for this edition's earlier place in the calendar and the virtual setup, the shape of this race (underscored by the visceral nature of Tuesday's opening debate) made the tension of the moment already higher than its predecessors. Add in the conventional wisdom that a small slice of Catholic voters – mostly across the Rust Belt, but quite possibly in the "New South" as well – will determine the outcome, and what's always a significant pitch to the pews might just be more electorally significant than it's ever been.

All that said, here below is fullvideo of tonight's event, headlined by speeches lacking this night's usual lighthearted, roast-like tone, while still vividly underscoring the divergence between the contenders:

On a final church-state note, the nexus of the Catholic world and the political scene continues into the weekend: as ever on the eve of the First Monday in October, Sunday morning brings the Red Mass in Washington's St Matthew's Cathedral to mark the Supreme Court's new term.

Usually not filmed in keeping with SCOTUS' ban on cameras, the 10am liturgy will be live-streamed for the first time due to restrictions on attendance. While the capital's Archbishop Wilton Gregory took the preaching duties last year – as is custom for a new DC prelate in his first and last years in office – this 68th edition of the rites returns to the norm of a visiting homilist, this time Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, the USCCB Communications chair.

Like the Al Smith, this year's Red Mass comes amid a more charged backdrop than usual given last month's death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Trump's nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett – a figure hailed by conservatives for an especially intense Catholic identity – in her stead, with Barrett's mid-month confirmation hearings set to make for not just a societal flashpoint, but one within the church's walls, to boot.

While the Mass normally draws a majority of the Court – which would comprise six Catholics (of nine) upon Barrett's likely confirmation – only Chief Justice John Roberts is expected to attend this year in light of COVID precautions. A committed member of his suburban Maryland parish, the Chief was active in the capital's John Carroll Society, the guild of Catholic lawyers which organizes the liturgy, long before his 2005 elevation to the bench.