NEW YORK — These are hard times marked by longings for civil discourse among opponents, the smooth transfer of power, and the ability to acknowledge the shortcomings of our ancestors without rewriting or erasing history in self-loathing and accusation, according to Condoleeza Rice.
The former U.S. secretary of state was the keynote speaker at the 76th annual dinner of the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Oct. 21 at the Javits Center Expansion.
“We seem to long for a different future than the one in our darkest moments we see ahead of us,” she said.
The longing is sometimes expressed as a kind of nostalgia based on an incomplete picture of history. “In our past, ‘we the people’ excluded many. Today’s diverse voices, some unheard for years, are improving our national character even though the journey is rocky,” Rice said.
We embrace who we are today yet reclaim our faith in the institutions that have brought us this far by combining the greatness of governmental efforts with the power of voluntary, often faith-based associations, she said.
“If we add a belief in the essential goodness of the American people, we will have a combination that is unbeatable,” she said.
The Al Smith dinner honors the memory of the former governor of New York, who was the first Catholic nominated by a major political party to run for president of the United States.
Proceeds from the $5,000-a-plate event help needy children in Greater New York. The foundation distributed $8 million in grants in 2020, with particular focus on assistance to those affected by the pandemic.
The event drew more than 600 guests to the traditionally festive gathering of political, religious and philanthropic New Yorkers. Among those sharing the three-tiered dais were New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, comedian Jim Gaffigan and actress Brooke Shields.
Last year’s anticipated diamond anniversary, or 75th anniversary, of the dinner was canceled in favor of a virtual event featuring the quadrennial matchup of presidential candidates.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, the evening’s host, said it was a joy to be together after he presided over the 2020 event remotely from his residence.
He quipped that last year, after blithely quoting Jesus’ promise to be wherever two or more were gathered in his name, he had to verify the number of people in the quiet room.
Journalist and FOX Business Network anchor Maria Bartiromo was the dinner’s mistress of ceremonies. She joked that current supply chain disruptions required the foundation to cut dinner portions in half while hedging against inflation by doubling the price of a ticket.
Former President George W. Bush addressed the gathering via prerecorded video. He said Al Smith dinner guests are, in his father’s words, points of light, and represent neighbors helping neighbors in support of the most vulnerable.
“I might add that we will be having some new neighbors,” he said, referring to Afghans. “I’m confident our country will welcome them and help them succeed,” he said.
Bush appeared in a black T-shirt printed to look like the formal wear required of other dais guests. He acknowledged Rice as “one of our most gifted Secretaries of State, a great ‘strategerist.'” He added, “Don’t believe her when she tells you I used to refer to the president of Russia as ‘Rootin’ Tootin’ Vladimir Putin.'”
Rice acknowledged the loss of her good friend former Secretary of State General Colin Powell. She said he was a giant among us and a gem of a human being. “Colin Powell was a patriot. We will miss him,” she said.
Rice entered into the spirit of the event, which calls for speakers to poke gentle fun at themselves and other participants. She mused about why she was invited to address the dinner. Perhaps it was an audition for a dream job as commissioner of the National Football League?
“But I already live and work in Silicon Valley, another place with huge egos and plenty of 20-somethings with more money than common sense, so the NFL would be a lateral move,” she said.
She projected a photograph of herself as a high school student at St. Mary’s Academy in Denver and said her time under the tutelage of the Sisters of Loretto might have qualified her for the invitation. It shaped her, she said, but obviously not as a rules follower.
“In the photo, I’ve perfected the tried-and-true rite of passage in Catholic girls’ schools: Rolling up your skirt just high enough to be stylish but not too short to have the nuns expel you before graduation,” she said.
Rice, the daughter and granddaughter of Presbyterian ministers, described an audience with St. John Paul II where she blurted out, “God bless you, Holy Father!” and was immediately embarrassed.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, he blesses you, you don’t bless him. What a stupid Protestant thing to do: I bless you. You bless me. All of God’s children bless each other!”
She said the pope, whom she credits with lifting millions of East Europeans out of communism, responded with humble thanks.
Rice said she was sworn into the post of secretary of state by late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg while standing under a portrait of Benjamin Franklin.
Reflecting on herself as an African American woman taking the oath in front of a Jewish woman justice, she said, “That the impossible now seems almost inevitable in retrospect is reason to reject cynicism about who we are and who we are becoming and embrace hope firmly as we move forward together in this still-young century.”
In his invocation, Dolan asked God’s blessings on recently deceased supporters of the event, including Powell, longtime dinner emcee and foundation board member Alfred E. Smith IV and beloved New York restaurateur Jimmy Neary.
He asked guests to “remember the struggling, the ill, the newly arrived, the very poor and those who benefit from your generosity.”
During the dinner, Frank Bennack Jr., executive vice chairman of Hearst, received the Happy Warrior Award. The distinction recalls the nickname given to Al Smith by Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1924 Democratic Convention. The award recognizes someone who epitomizes Gov. Smith’s character, grace and leadership by making a positive impact on others.
New York Police Department Officer Brianna Fernandez sang the national anthem to open the dinner.