NEW YORK — When Paul Ryan, the House speaker, rose to deliver the keynote address at the Al Smith charity dinner Thursday night, he immediately let it be known that he wouldn’t shy away from jokes about a president who doesn’t react well to jokes.
“Enough with the applause,” he told the annual white-tie gathering of New York’s political and Catholic elite, which raises money for needy children. “You sound like the Cabinet when Donald Trump walks into the room.”
With that, Ryan began a spirited 17-minute roast that included jokes about his home state of Wisconsin, the news media, Hillary Clinton’s election loss and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
But his edgiest zingers were aimed at Trump, who just a year ago was himself a speaker at the dinner and who shocked the lighthearted gathering when his jibes about Clinton quickly turned more cruel than funny.
“The truth is the press misunderstands and never records the big accomplishments of the White House,” Ryan said, for a second agreeing with the president. “Look at all the jobs that the president has created. Just among the White House staff!”
“Every morning I wake up in my office and I scroll through Twitter to see which tweets I will have to pretend I didn’t see later on,” he added. “Every afternoon former Speaker John Boehner calls me up, not to give advice, just to laugh.”
Ryan’s address was the highlight of the event, officially the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, which raised $3.4 million for charity but which at times lacked the panache and elegance of past years. For the first time since 1945, the dinner was not held in the classic art deco ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria hotel, which is under renovation. Instead, it was a few blocks away at the less glamorous New York Hilton Midtown.
“We are going to try to get back there as quickly as we can,” Mary Callahan Erdoes, the new vice chairwoman of the foundation, told the more than 800 guests in a near-apology.
Also missing were the political jabs of Alfred E. Smith IV, the great-grandson of the dinner’s eponym, who stepped down as master of ceremonies after last year’s dinner after serving in that position for 35 years. This year’s host, actress Patricia Heaton, was unfailingly nice, which meant she was shocked by how aggressive some of the jibes from the dais were.
“I am from Ohio,” she explained. “We are all so nice to each other!”
The two U.S. senators from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, were missing from their seats on the 50-member dais, because they had a vote in Washington. But Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and former mayors Michael Bloomberg and David Dinkins were there, along with numerous Catholic leaders and local dignitaries.
Bloomberg got a particularly warm round of applause when he was introduced. De Blasio, however, got repeated boos from a moneyed crowd that was not shy about identifying as Republican.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York and a host of the event, and Ryan, a fellow Roman Catholic, go way back. By Dolan’s telling, they have been friends since 2002, when he became the archbishop of Milwaukee and Ryan was a representative from his Wisconsin district.
As a result, he has unfailingly spoken highly of Ryan over the years in public remarks, even when liberal Catholics have taken Ryan to task for supporting policies they feel would hurt the poor and vulnerable. Thursday night was no different, with Dolan calling Ryan’s virtue and sense of duty uplifting.
Outside the event, meanwhile, protesters made themselves known. About 50 denounced Ryan on the issue of immigration, criticizing him for failing to support the continuation of DACA, which shields undocumented immigrants who arrived as children from deportation. Another group of about 100 protesters marched by the hotel, chanting, “You build that wall, we’ll tear it down.”
Being Republican in a town not used to them was another theme in Ryan’s remarks, which were met with appreciative laughter. He joked about how amazing Heaton was, as a Republican in that most Democratic of elite worlds, Hollywood.
“Patricia Heaton is a Hollywood Republican, a Hollywood Republican,” he repeated. “That is an oxymoron, which clearly was the word that Rex Tillerson was searching for.”