Editor's note: Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York City all-news channel.
(CNN) -- Mitt Romney and President Obama's good-natured exchange of jokes at the 2012 Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner Thursday night renewed a fine American tradition of applying the balm of laughter to the bitterness of politics.
Every year, a tuxedo-clad cross-section of the nation's political and economic elites gather at the swank Waldorf-Astoria hotel, paying top dollar to raise money for the local charitable work of the Catholic Church.
But this is in many ways a secondary goal. Over the decades, the dinner has become a ritual of reassurance -- a public statement that the nation's most important economic, political and religious institutions are in the hands of people of steady judgment, solid character and good faith.
Onscreen, as Romney and Obama delivered their zingers, television viewers saw the main speaker framed by two white-haired men -- one younger, one older -- laughing on the dais behind the podium. Most probably could not name the two men, but their presence speaks volumes about the dinner.
To the left was Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. His father, the late Cyrus Vance, had a storied career as one of the wise men of Washington, a confidant of presidents who was quietly dispatched to trouble spots from riot-torn Detroit to the negotiating table in Vietnam and Korea. He served as secretary of the Army and secretary of State.
To the right was Howard Rubenstein, a public relations mogul whose client list has included Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, Time, Inc., the Yankees, the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. A magazine profile of Rubenstein -- a confidant of New York's last six mayors, four governors and presidents reaching back to Harry Truman -- describes him as "ubiquitous, trusted, a kind of gentle fixer for those who run New York: its governments and newspapers, its cultural institutions, boardrooms, and sports teams."
That is what the Al Smith Dinner is about: The connection and continuity of the nation's leaders. It's no coincidence that Obama and Romney both tossed verbal bouquets to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, joking that Cuomo, like Romney, is the son of a governor who hopes to ascend to higher office.
Presiding over it all were Cardinal Timothy Dolan, a prince of the church who flew directly from a conclave at the Vatican to host the dinner, and Al Smith IV, the great-grandson of Al Smith, the New York governor who became the first Catholic major-party nominee for president.
It was all in good fun, for the benefit of a nation bedeviled by a sluggish economy, political gridlock and scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church --and that could use a few chuckles these days. The closing weeks of the presidential campaign have been marked by slashing attacks and accusations of dishonesty by both candidates.
But even the story of Al Smith, the dinner's namesake, has a touch of tragedy to it. His 1928 campaign was marred by religious bigotry, and his swings through the Deep South were greeted by Ku Klux Klan cross burnings.
For one night, though, the problems and divisions were put aside at the Waldof. Wall Street titans, reviled after the economic crash in 2009, sat side-by-side with some of their fiercest media critics. Obama and Romney praised each other as good family men. And this year's haul, estimated at a record-breaking $5 million, will pay for a wide range of programs for the ill, the elderly and the poor in and around New York City.
Catholics now make up nearly a quarter of the electorate, and in 2012, for the first time, both vice presidential candidates are Catholic. Which means the spirit of Al Smith got the last and best laugh of all.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Errol Louis