In the middle of an important and extremely hard-fought campaign, two competitors who visibly dislike each other on personal and political levels came together to briefly put their swords aside, the mission of the Al Smith Dinner, which has been bringing candidates together since 1945. And yes, the moment was brief — one of the speeches seemed more biting than normal for an event primarily dedicated to self-deprecation — but it was there. President Obama and former Governor Romney met for the first time on friendly ground since 2004, the first sitting president to attend an Al Smith Dinner since 1984, and I was there, as the exclusive independent eye. They joked about Romney’s singing, they smiled in ways that showed exactly why they have reached the pinnacles of political life, and they prepared to bring the house down, raising millions for the archdiocese and marking the progress Catholicism has made in American politics. When Al Smith ran for president in 1924, the Klu Klux Klan almost managed to get an explicit anti-Catholic plank on the Democratic party platform. In 2012, both tickets have Catholics on them and no one even really notices.
It was an incredible honor in 2008 with Senators Obama and McCain, who as co-workers at the time were openly collegial throughout the night, but there is a unique thrill to photographing a current president, to tell the most powerful person in the world even which way to turn and smile.
I’d covered Presidents Bush and Clinton as part of press scrums for upstate newspapers, and won an award for coverage of Clinton when I sneakily broke away from the press pack with this crazy new device called a digital camera, but it’s hard to be fully prepared for an event like this. Even just maintaining sight lines for good compositions is a Herculean challenge when you are between the rock of not wanting to elbow aside a billionaire and the hard place of making sure Secret Service can keep a direct path to him at all times.
A challenge, and a thrill. One of the draws of photography is to spend my time doing something that will outlive me. I shoot weddings because these are images that people will value for decades. But to stand at a crossroads in history and witness the moment when these two candidates came together, shared each other a laugh, and called each other honorable men … thank you. Thank you for this.