The Archdiocese of New York announced Tuesday that Dr. Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State and Nobel Laureate, will be the guest speaker at this year’s Al Smith Dinner, the archdiocese’s annual gala charitable fundraising event.
The October dinner, named in honor of the first Catholic to secure a major party nomination for the White House, has been a mainstay of the American Catholic social calendar since it was inaugurated in 1945. The dinner traditionally features prominent political figures as the headline speakers, including a joint appearance by the presidential candidates in an election year.
Presidents and vice-presidents apart, Kissinger is now the first guest speaker to merit a second invitation — he last addressed the dinner in 1974, two months after the resignation of President Richard Nixon, in whose administration he served.
While critics of the decision to honor Kissinger, who turned 100 in May, may point to his practice of realpolitik and his role in the Nixon administration’s secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, the Al Smith Dinner has never shied away from colorful and even controversial speakers.
Presidents and VPs apart, the dinner has a long tradition of hosting the good, the bad, the fascinating, and the unexpected. But in the dinner’s 78 year history, which speakers bring the most voltage to the podium?
Opinions may differ, but for us the choices are clear, so The Pillar brings you the top 10 Al Smith Dinner Speaker Power Rankings:
Editors’ note: Speakers were ranked on how interesting they are — to us — and not on their Catholicism, since that seems to be how the Al Smith Dinner picks them. Presidential and vice presidential candidates were excluded from the list because there is nothing more boring than a campaigning politician.
10. Bob Newhart, 1999
For an event meant to encourage people to open their wallets, the Al Smith speaker list is surprisingly short on entertainers. But when they do book an act, they go for the top drawer.
But when picking a man with the power to hold an audience in his hand, there’s no question that Newhart is the funnier of the two Bobs (Hope got his invite back in 1971).
9. “King” Umberto II of Savoy, 1963
Nothing classes up a white tie dinner like some aristocracy, and the Al Smith Dinner went for royal gold with the last king of Italy, deposed by a referendum in 1946 after only a month on the throne.
Umberto’s father, Victor Emmanuel, abdicated in his son’s favor and went into exile just weeks before the vote, in the hopes that it would put some distance between the monarchy and its association with the fascist government of Mussolini. But it didn’t work.
While Umberto was viewed as less tied to the wartime government than his father, he was still seen as something of a playboy, a dilettante, and a hopeless statesman — including by his dad.
While historical purists might quibble that the “Kingdom of Italy” was created out of the masonic-funded Risorgimento which invaded the Papal States and made open war on the pope, a king is a king, and for sheer star power, that’s still worth something.
8. Lido “Lee” Iacocca, 1983
Iacocca, a career marketing man for the Ford motor company, might seem like an unlikely selection, but really he should be a consensus pick on any all-American Catholic team.
The son of Ellis Island immigrants, he started out as a local sales guy for the car company, before ascending to be vice president and general manager of the Ford brand — and later, the company president.
It was under Lee’s leadership that Ford created the Mustang and the Continental Mark III. And he’s also credited with goading Henry Ford II (The Deuce) into working with Carol Shelby’s racing company, turning Ford racing into an international powerhouse, and knocking Ferrari off its perch at Le Mans in 1966.
He was also a noted philanthropist, helping raise nearly $750,000 to subsidize the Archdiocese of Detroit’s 24-hour visit from St. John Paul II in 1987.
Few remember it now, but Iaccoca was such an American legend in his own lifetime that he considered running for president in 1988, with polls showing he had a real shot at winning.
7. Dr. Thomas O. Paine, 1969
Dr. Paine was a top-drawer scientist and engineer in the golden age of American ingenuity. Appointed the third director of NASA shortly after the Apollo I disaster in 1967, his mission was simple: get America to the Moon before the decade was out, just like JFK promised.
His tenure included the successful lunar landings of Apollo XI and XII in 1969, and the heroic failure of Apollo XIII. He had his eye on the future, too, putting forward a post-Apollo proposal for NASA’s next slate of mission priorities, which included a permanent Moon base and Earth-orbiting orbiting space station to be completed in the 1970s, building up to a manned mission to Mars in the ‘80s.
President Nixon rejected the plan, probably advised by two other Al Smith speakers — Kissinger and Vice President Spiro Agnew, with whom Paine shared the podium at the 1969 dinner — dooming us all to live in a world in which Elon Musk has privatized space exploration.
After NASA, Paine returned to General Electric, where he’d previously worked as head of TEMPO, the company’s research and development wing.
If you’re booking a speaker, Paine was a visionary, there’s no doubting that. Though he wasn’t always a prophet.
Here he is in 1966 confidently predicting that by 1990, thanks to computers, American men would get their first real jobs at 25, work a 2-3 day week with 6 months vacation every year, and retire at 50.
6. Louis Freeh, 1994
Director of the FBI for nearly 20 years, from 1993-2001, Freeh’s spot on the Al Smith Dinner power list explains itself — when you’re the country’s top cop, you swing a big bat.
But for our money, Freeh merits a spot for his closeness to some big controversy — though that wouldn’t have been clear to Al Smith organizers in 1994.
He took the top job with the Feds just after the Ruby Ridge and Waco fiascos and repeatedly locked horns with Attorney General Janet Reno over the fallout from both.
Freeh also presided over the final apprehension of the Unibomber in 1996, after he and Reno agreed to the controversial publication of Ted Kaczynski’s infamous manifesto in the Washington Post.
In 2001, he saw the discovery and arrest of Robert Hanssen, who worked as a Russian mole inside the agency for 15 years in what Time Magazine called “one of the worst failures of American intelligence ever and a brutal humiliation for the FBI.”
Bringing the scandal home for Freeh, he and Hanssen actually attended the same parish for years.
5. Admiral Alan Kirk, 1951
In the decades following World War II, the Al Smith Dinner hosted a lot of top military brass, including one Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (three time invitee, but disqualified from this list because he came as a candidate and as president).
Admiral Kirk might not have Ike’s instant name recognition, but his resume is hard to beat as an impact player. He served as naval attaché in London from 1939-41, before coming back to Washington after America entered the war to head up the Office of Naval Intelligence. But he quickly got fed up with desk work and Washington politics, and requested a sea command instead.
He was amphibious commander of Allied forces in the Med for the invasion of Sicily and the senior U.S. naval commander for the D-Day landings.
After the war, he became a career diplomat, and was our man in Moscow from 1949-51, addressing the Al Smith Dinner as he returned from his tour as ambassador.
In ‘52 he was made director of the not-at-all-sinister-sounding Psychological Strategy Board, the U.S. government’s coordinating body for psychological warfare against the Commies.
4. Henry Kissinger, 1974, 2023
No one can claim Kissinger isn’t a polarizing figure, and few would call his political career a model of Christian values. But Kissinger’s power, real and star factor, are undeniable.
After surviving the collapse of the Nixon administration, Kissinger turned into a global reference point on world events, and few would rank him outside the most influential figures of the last 50 years, let alone dinner speakers.
He may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s a reason he’s a two-time Al Smith invitee.
3. Clare Boothe Luce, 1957
If you’ve never heard of Clare Boothe Luce, you’ve been missing out. A playwright, war correspondent, politician and diplomat, she did it all.
As a writer she was compared to Evelyn Waugh for savage humor, and coined the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished.” As a journalist, she toured the European theater from 1939-41, and swung through China in 1942.
One her way home, she stopped in the then British colony of Trinidad, where a customs officer found a draft article for Life magazine, criticizing the British Army’s Middle East commander for living in comfort miles behind the battlefront and calling the RAF pilots “flying fairies,” and ended up under house arrest.
In her private life, she had a brief marriage to the billionaire George Brokaw, whom she divorced for being a “hopeless alcoholic” and remarried to Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life magazines. As a society fixture in New York, she was known to be lovers with Joe Kennedy, the bootlegger-turned political godfather, and Roald Dahl.
The future children's author was in New York as a young Air Force officer, assigned as a kind of society secret agent charged with promoting support for Britain in the years before America entered World War II.
Thirteen year’s Boothe’s junior at the time, Dahl was ordered to seduce her romantically and politically, but he eventually wrote back to his superiors saying he couldn’t keep pace with Boothe’s romantic demands and asked to be excused from the assignment. He was denied.
She was elected to Congress in 1942, and was given a seat on the House Military Affairs Committee, but her life changed course in 1944, when her only child, a daughter, died in a car crash.
She went to Bishop Fulton Sheen for grief counseling and converted to Catholicism. Thereafter, she turned her writing to apologetics and promoting the faith.
After the war, and a break from politics, she became U.S. ambassador to Italy in 1953, becoming the most senior female ambassador in America’s history. There she was dubbed “La Signora” in Rome, became a friend of Pius XII, and helped broker a peaceful solution to a border crisis between Italy and Yugoslavia.
2. Beverly Sills, 1990
A Brooklyn native, opera soprano, and prize-winner of the 1932 Most Beautiful Baby competition, you simply can’t beat Beverly Sills for star status.
The New York Times called her singing technique “exemplary” and her vocal agility “effortless,” but she cut back her performance schedule significantly after she married in 1956 and became the mother of two children born with disabilities, to whom she dedicated herself completely.
“I asked the agonizing, self-centered question, ‘Why me, God?’ I was so full of self-pity that when I walked along the street I’d say to myself, ‘Who in this crowd is suffering as much as I?’”
“When that self-centered period faded somewhat, I asked the bigger question, ‘Why them? What did those precious innocents do to deserve this fate?’ When I was going through this period of doubt and despair, my mother would say, ‘In God’s sight your children are perfect. No flaws. We must see them as He does.’
“Slowly I began to believe it. I began to talk to God personally the way Mama does. I’d talk to Him about the hurt I felt and ask Him to take it away. And then I began thanking him for the small victories.”
“Once back in the public eye, [her husband] and I faced a decision. Do we refuse to discuss our children publicly, or do we openly admit our heartache in hopes that it will be helpful in some way to others? The answer we seemed to receive to this prayer was that we should be open and vulnerable about our experiences.”
“I don’t think any of us understand why our children are afflicted. But I have come to see that suffering somehow is an important part of God’s grand design for us. He gives each of us certain gifts and puts us in the world for a measured time. But we are not puppets on a string.
“We have freedom to make choices, good or bad. We are subject to hurts and illness. We have joys and sorrows. But God is not some uncaring force; I believe He hurts when we hurt because He loves us.”
That’s powerful. And so is this.
1. Sir Winston Churchill, 1946
Fresh off winning World War II but losing an election, the then former and future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom headlined the first Al Smith dinner in 1946.
He’s Winston Bloody Churchill, what else is there to say?