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 CNS Story:

DINNER Oct-17-2008 (990 words) With photos. xxxn

Presidential nominees McCain, Obama trade quips at Al Smith dinner

By Beth Griffin
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) -- The topics the candidates sparred over at the final presidential debate the night before morphed into punch lines Oct. 16 as Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama shared the dais at the 63rd annual dinner of the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.

The two men were relaxed and engaging as they poked fun at themselves, each other, fellow officials and the media in front of an appreciative audience of 1,500 philanthropists, politicians and clergy, all in formal attire.

Each of the 70 people seated on the four-tiered stage of the grand ballroom would have warranted bold-faced type about themselves at any other event.

McCain quipped that he had dismissed his entire staff of senior campaign advisers that morning.

"All of their positions will now be held by a man named Joe the Plumber," he said, in a reference to the everyman he quoted in the final presidential debate.

He aimed zings at former President Bill Clinton for his lukewarm support of the Obama candidacy, which he called "a brazen attempt to suppress turnout among anti-Clinton conservatives," and at MSNBC personality Chris Matthews for switching his apparent allegiance from McCain to Obama, saying, "Maverick I can do; messiah is above my pay grade."

He jokingly targeted Obama's get-out-the-vote campaign using the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, and "helping to register people previously excluded and overlooked, such as second-graders, the deceased and Disney characters." Some ACORN voter registration tactics have come under scrutiny.

Although McCain was in the midst of a humorous riff when he called himself the underdog in the campaign, there was a concessionary and reflective air to his remarks.

McCain expressed admiration for Obama's skill, energy and determination, called him "an impressive fellow in many ways," and said: "It's not for nothing that he has inspired so many folks in his own party and beyond. Sen. Obama talks about making history and he's made quite a bit of it already."

He said, "I can't wish my opponent luck, but I do wish him well."

McCain praised the work of the Al Smith foundation and the New York Archdiocese and associated himself with the pro-life cause.

He said both entities are "carrying on the spirited work of this good man through your service to the poor, comfort for the sick and needy, your belief in the dignity of life, especially your gallant defense of the rights of the unborn. I'm proud to count myself as your friend and ally."

Obama joked that he shared "the politics of Alfred E. Smith and the ears of Alfred E. Newman," the Mad magazine cartoon character.

He made light of his opponent's age: "From everything Sen. McCain has told me, (Al Smith) was a great man." He cracked that his own graying hair was attributable to his battle for the nomination with dais-mate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he called "one of the toughest and most formidable candidates in presidential history."

Obama lampooned his own reputation, suggesting the event was originally scheduled for Yankee Stadium, an apparent reference to the Denver stadium for his acceptance speech for the nomination. He said his greatest strength was his humility and his greatest weakness was the possibility that "I'm a little too awesome."

He acknowledged that he was not born in a manger, but was born on the planet Krypton and sent by his father, Jor-El, to save the earth, a la Superman. He also enumerated upcoming October surprises, including one that his middle name is actually Steve.

Obama lauded his opponent, saying, "There are very few of us who have served this country with the same dedication and honor and distinction as Sen. McCain and I'm glad to be sharing a stage with him tonight."

He said the presence of so many people of different political stripes at the event was an acknowledgement that "we ultimately belong to something bigger and more lasting than a political party. We belong to a community. We share a country. We are all children of God."

Obama said, "Scripture says that God creates us for works of service" and he acknowledged the work of the Archdiocese of New York in performing acts of God every day. He added, "Each one of us has a responsibility, an obligation" to do good, seek justice and play a part in building a more hopeful world."

Obama predicted the country will weather the current economic storm battering it, and will, "in the words of Al Smith, 'walk once more in eternal sunshine.'"

New York Cardinal Edward M. Egan presided at the event, which benefits needy children served by Catholic organizations in greater New York. He introduced soprano Renee Fleming, who sang Schubert's "Ave Maria" as an invocation.

The Al Smith dinner honors the memory of the former governor of New York, who was raised in poverty and was the first Catholic nominated by a major political party to run for president of the United States.

Every year, it is a lighthearted command performance for local and state politicians, but in presidential election years, it is also a one-night respite from the barbs and slings of the charged campaign season.

Alfred E. Smith IV, chairman of the dinner, was the master of ceremonies for the $1,500-a-plate event. He reported that a record $4 million was raised from the guests, who dined on lobster tail, rack of lamb and chocolate raspberry "cadeau."

Smith billed the event as "Thursday Night Live" and said that his great-grandfather would have appreciated this presidential election.

"No matter who wins, history will be made," he said. "If Obama wins, it'll be the first time we have a vice president from Delaware and if McCain wins, he'll be the first president to have a 96-year-old mother."


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