MANHATTAN — The United States has many longings for justice but the character of its citizens offer cause for optimism, said Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State, at the Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner.
For 76 years, the “Al Smith Dinner” has raised money for Catholic organizations that help children and other causes in the Archdiocese of New York.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who shepherds the Archdiocese of New York, thanked the audience for donating more than $7 million for archdiocesan charities — a record amount for the foundation.
Last year’s event raised around $5 million, which helped cover $8 million for COVID-19 relief efforts. The balance came from an emergency fund the foundation built after Hurricane Sandy for future disaster responses.
Secretary Rice, who served in the administration of President George W. Bush, delivered the keynote address in a ballroom of the Javits Center Expansion.
Her speech was laced with wit but also sober assessments of current realities facing the nation, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and a political climate saddled with the rancor of dueling ideologies.
“These are hard times,” she said. “And we seem to long for a different future. There’s a longing for time for the peaceful transfer of power. There’s a longing for time when political opponents can disagree vigorously and still remember that we are all in this together, and when we as citizens can talk without yelling past each other.
“And there is a longing for time when we can reform policing without attacking the integrity of our police officers who do such dangerous work on our behalf.
“There is a longing for time we can face up to the total passing of our birth defect of slavery, without seeing the worst of each other.”
Secretary Rice, born 1954 in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, became the first black woman and the second woman to serve as Secretary of State.
She noted that however flawed the founding fathers were — many owned slaves — they still provided a path forward to achieving total justice for all.
“They explicitly left the remaining power, indeed most of it, to the people,” Secretary Rice said. “That means that our representational design leaves much of the work to us. There is great wisdom in that.”
She said groups like the “Al Smith Memorial Foundation” — run by the people, not the government — uniquely accomplish what the government can’t do. She praised the foundation for supporting organizations that offer compassion to teenage mothers, healing for foster children suffering physical and emotional abuse, or inspiration for children to pursue life-changing educational opportunities.
And yet the nation has made strides, the speaker said. She noted that the foundation’s namesake, New York Gov. Al Smith, a Catholic, campaigned for president against Herbert Hoover in 1928.
“That campaign,” she said, “must be remembered for something very serious — the anti-Catholic scare that it took.”
She said Hoover himself didn’t assail Catholicism, “but many from pulpits made the outrageous claim, saying, for instance, that Smith would take away the right to read the Bible.”
“Religious freedom can never be taken for granted,” Secretary Rice said, “but we have come a long way with the elections of John Kennedy and Joe Biden (both Catholic) and the rejection of intolerance towards Mitt Romney (of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) in 2012.”
Shifting to her own experience, Secretary Rice offered cause for optimism in her being sworn in as Secretary of State by the late Supreme Court Justice, “my Watergate neighbor,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“I swore an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution — the original version of which counted my ancestors as 3/5ths of a man,” she said. “It wouldn’t seem possible, but now the impossible seems almost inevitable. It’s reason to reject cynicism about who we are and embrace hope firmly, as we move forward together into this still young century.”
Maria Bartiromo, FOX Business Anchor, and the mistress of ceremonies for the dinner, recounted how last year’s event, the 75th anniversary, was held remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alternatively, the dinner’s “Diamond Jubilee” would be celebrated at this year’s dinner on its 76th anniversary.
Both Cardinal Dolan and Secretary Rice praised the memory of Colin Powell, who served the nation as a U.S. Army general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State. Powell, who was honored at the dinner in 2002, died Oct. 18.
Cardinal Dolan also noted the attendance at the dinner of Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who enters retirement on Nov. 30.
“Bishop DiMarzio,” the Cardinal said, “thank you as you move into retirement for your two decades of energetic services.”