The banquet regularly draws the biggest guns in American politics. On Thursday the crowded ballroom with the five tiers of grandees seated on the dais could observe the two presidential contenders seated together for two hours, separated only by the majestically garbed new archbishop of New York, Edward M. Egan. It was the first social scene ever featuring both players. The audience, jocularly referred to by Gov. Bush as the "1 percent" so regularly demonized by Candidate Gore, was there to effect corporal acts of mercy -- almost $1 million was realized for Catholic hospitals and medical centers -- but also to wallow in the political excitement of the day.
A theatrical flare was sparked at the very first moment by the histrionic behavior of the vice president. Everyone was standing, heads bowed, for the benediction --captains of industry, the governor and former governors, the mayor and former mayors, contenders Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio. Silence. What were we waiting for? A full minute went by, then -- enter Vice President Gore. God could now be addressed, the "The Star-Spangled Banner" could be sung and the guests could be seated.
The upcoming municipal question is on the Mets vs. the Yankees. The emcee polled the audience on both, and established the Yankees as marginally the winners. The applause-meter, at the Al Smith dinners, is king. The hundred guests seated on the dais are introduced one by one as they walk onstage from the wings, and everyone is alert to relative intensity of welcomes. Former mayor Ed Koch is always a heavy favorite. So, on Thursday, was Mayor Giuliani. Candidate Lazio greatly outdistanced Hillary.
Exquisite care was taken to cope with the problem of Gore/Bush. It was handled with episcopal skill, by introducing them jointly. That way the crowd would not demoralize the loser.
It is largely, though by no means exclusively, a Catholic audience. That implies tribal hospitality to the Democratic figure. On the other hand, only the Republican was pro-life. And when he got around to saying this in a brief and funny speech, he won hearty approval, candidates Gore and Hillary notably rigid.
The tradition at these dinners is frank political congeniality heavily leavened by humor. There is sometimes an edge. In 1976, candidate Jimmy Carter declined to stay at the table after his own speech, to hear that of opponent President Gerald Ford. This time, the humor was sharp but less than icy. Gore thought back on the illustrious Smith, who "ran on an agenda that was revolutionary for his time --a 45-cent minimum wage, limiting the workweek to six days, building a bridge to the 1930s -- and I want to say it's quite a tribute to Al Smith that Governor Bush has adopted the same agenda."
George W. was equally self-deprecating. "'You know, George,'" he quoted his wife's advice, "'this is an important crowd. Whatever you do, don't try to be charming or witty or debonair -- just be yourself.'"
The candidate referred to one guest. "And I see Bill Buckley's here tonight, a fellow Yale man. We go way back, and have a lot in common. Bill wrote a book at Yale. I read one. He founded the Conservative Party. I started a few parties myself. Bill won every debate he ever had -- and, well, I know how that feels."
It was more of the same for five minutes. "We just had some great news out of Yugoslavia. I'm especially pleased Milosevic has stepped down. One less polysyllabic name to remember."
But he closed on a note of impressive generosity and even solemnity. He spoke about his opponent: "Like me, he married up. This is clearly a man who respects and loves his wife and his family. You also learn to see his strengths, and my opponent has many. He is a person of amazing energy and skill and determination. I can't wish him success, but I do wish him well."
That is high use of the language, and of civilized sentiments. And to close, "Your Excellency, Laura and I would like you to come and visit with our family next year. I'll send you the address as soon as I know what it is."