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 Gov. 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 earth-shaker Robert Moses. After Humphrey sat down, overextending by 20 minutes the 10 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.