By Kevin Jones
While presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton traded verbal jabs at the Al Smith Dinner and showed some icy awkwardness, Cardinal Timothy Dolan thought a moment of prayer was the best part of the evening.
The cardinal had asked both politicians to pray with him, and the result showed “the evening at its best,” he recounted Oct. 21.
“After the little prayer, Mr. Trump turned to Secretary Clinton and said, ‘You are one tough and talented woman’,” Cardinal Dolan told the news site TODAY. “He said, ‘This has been a good experience, this whole campaign, as tough as it’s been’.”
“She said to him, ‘Donald, whatever happens, we need to work together afterward’,” the cardinal reported.
The dinner takes its name from former New York Gov. Al Smith, the first Catholic to be nominated for U.S. president. Smith’s great-grandson, Al Smith IV, co-chaired the event. The cardinal sat between the Democratic and Republican candidates.
Cardinal Dolan said the latest event was like “a family dinner where you’re just hoping things go well.”
It comes near the end of a tense and often unpredictable political campaign.
Clinton is at odds with Catholicism on several major issues. She is a strong supporter of legal abortion, taxpayer funding for abortion, and LGBT activism. Catholics’ religious freedoms are under pressure from her political allies. A leaked February 2012 email from her current campaign manager John Podesta appeared to show him wanting to promote a “Catholic Spring”-type revolution within the Church in response to religious freedom controversy over mandatory contraceptive coverage. His email, posted to Wikileaks, appeared to suggest former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of slain 1968 presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, could play a role in aiding a Catholic political revolt within the Church.
For his part, Trump has antagonized many Hispanics and others over his remarks on immigrants and Muslims. While he has claimed a recent conversion to pro-life beliefs and policy, many commentators have questioned his personality and his character, especially following release of a 2005 tape of his lewd banter that appeared to condone and admit sexual assault. Multiple women have also accused him of assault, harassment and misbehavior.
Despite these tensions and controversies, the Al Smith Dinner is traditionally intended to be a lighthearted affair that allows the candidates to roast each other humorously and to mock themselves.
The famously boastful Trump, who spoke first Thursday evening, joked that his modesty is “perhaps my best quality” and even better than his temperament. He joked that his companies’ buildings were built with his own “beautifully formed hands,” while Cardinal Dolan’s buildings were built “with the hands of God, and nobody can compete with God. Is that correct? Nobody. Right?”
He joked that the heads of major media companies were part of Clinton’s campaign staff and he poked fun at the fact that his wife used a speech apparently that appeared to be plagiarized from First Lady Michelle Obama.
Trump’s jokes at Clinton’s expense at times hit hard and drew boos from a crowd that grew unsympathetic.
“I don’t know who they’re angry at Hillary, you or I,” he said in response to an unfavorable response to his joke. “For example, here she is tonight, in public, pretending not to hate Catholics.”
He said the dinner guests could agree on the need to support disadvantaged children.
“We can also agree on the need to stand up to anti-Catholic bias, to defend religious liberty and to create a culture that celebrates life,” he said. “America is in many ways divided like it’s never been before. And the great religious leaders here tonight give us all an example that we can follow.”
Clinton, who went second, joked about her “rigorous nap schedule,” the fees she normally charges for speeches, and the incongruity that a dinner named for the populist Al Smith is held in “this magnificent room, full of plutocrats celebrating his legacy.”
She also joked that Trump would rate the Statue of Liberty based on her looks, that he was following a teleprompter script written by the Russians, that he was not really a billionaire, and that was not getting support from the Republican Party.
“I understand I am not known for my sense of humor,” Clinton said. “That’s why it did take a village to write these jokes.”
“And whoever wins this election, the outcome will be historic. We’ll either have the first female president or the first president who started a Twitter war with Cher,” she said.
Clinton said that opponents of Al Smith’s candidacy targeted him for his Catholic faith and spread rumors he would ban Bible reading and annul Protestant marriages.
“Rhetoric like that makes it harder for us to see each other, to respect each other, to listen to each other. And certainly a lot harder to love our neighbor as ourselves,” she said, adding “you certainly don’t need to be Catholic to be inspired by the humility and heart of the Holy Father, Pope Francis. Or to embrace his message.”
The next day, Cardinal Dolan told TODAY that the two candidates are “kind of awkward together” but said it was not a surprise. He said there was similar “iciness” four years ago when Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama
“The purpose of the evening is to break some of the ice, and thanks be to God, it works,” the cardinal said.
The dinner is a fundraiser for New York Catholic Charities. This year’s event netted about $6 million.