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Al Smith Dinner is a chance for the candidates to show civility

Let me finish tonight with this.

Let me finish tonight with this.

I'm heading to the Al Smith dinner tonight here in New York. As Fred Astaire would say: "Puttin' on my white tie, brushin' up my tails."

This dinner has been a big part of the American political ritual since I remember. It was a tough match-up for ole Dick Nixon back in 1960 A) because it was a home game for Jack Kennedy, being an Irish Catholic who grew up in Bronxville, and B) because he had Ted Sorensen writing the speech for him that night.

It was a tough night last time around for Barack Obama since John McCain gave maybe the speech of his life. By the way, being a war hero and that Celtic name of his didn't hurt a bit either.

But tonight at the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, New York's nomenclature—of every faith and party—will be there on the dais to measure the charms, the weight and the sense of place these two gentlemen can bring to the moment. The winner tonight is not always the winner of the election, but very often it is.

So, after the rough trade of Tuesday, the charm rivalry of tonight will be a different form of challenge. It will show who is worried, who is upbeat, and who, in the midst of this tough competition, has their act together.

I will arrive, like everyone else, with my own attitude. I will leave with it intact.

But I will also cheer at the notion that even when we totally disagree. I include myself very much in that "we"—we can still be civil, even cordial, able even when so much matters to share an evening that not necessarily decides the fate of this world.

I say that as someone who thinks this election could.