The TIME 100 Gala: The Sights and Sounds Inside a Celebration of Influence

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Jonathan D. Woods for TIME

Stephen Colbert toasts with TIME staff writer Ishaan Tharoor at the TIME100 gala.

When TIME’s editors selected the honorees for this year’s TIME 100 issue, they isolated the world’s most influential people into five categories: Breakouts, Pioneers, Moguls, Leaders and Icons. Even within those groupings, the 2012 TIME 100 honorees represent one of the most eclectic assemblages in the world.

So naturally, few were surprised when many of these icons gathered in one room on Tuesday evening, that the festivities would be as diverse as the RSVP list. This year’s TIME 100 gala (see exclusive photos from the party) was a meditation on and examination of America’s place in the world; a sweeping discussion of U.S. education; a tribute to those figures who most greatly influenced the honorees.

And when Stephen Colbert took to the stage, it became a roast of the icons as only Colbert Nation’s leader could envision it.

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Rick Stengel, TIME’s managing editor, kicked off the celebration by detailing the core mission of the TIME 100: to give a louder voice to those already changing the world. In this era of emerging technologies and pervasive social media, Stengel explained that influence, “has never been easier to achieve, but harder to maintain.” Stengel then introduced a woman whose influence only grows each year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (read her TIME 100 tribute).

“Welcome to my announcement to run for president of Malta,” Clinton said as she took the stage, continuing a thread from Stengel’s introduction that pointed to her popularity abroad and suggesting that she had taken Stengel to Libya shortly after the fall of Gaddafi as a clever ploy to get on the TIME 100 list. Secretary Clinton spoke about the international shockwaves caused by seemingly tiny, localized incidents — ripple effects made possible thanks to technology.

But America’s chief diplomat focused her most important remarks on America’s changing role in the world. “We needed to change the way we do business top to bottom,” she said, pointing to when she took over at Foggy Bottom. “We call that smart power.”

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Clinton has publicly said that she will step down as Secretary of State next January, regardless of who wins the Presidential election. But Smart Power will continue long after she’s gone. “America’s global leadership is not a birthright,” Clinton said. “It has to be earned by every successive generation.” And she is confident in America’s ability to lead. “We will continue to do so because we must. It’s in our DNA.”

If there was any honoree who could match Clinton as an anticipated speaker it was comedian and TV star Stephen Colbert, who used the stage as a platform to launch withering, hilarious gags at this year’s TIME 100 class — starting with himself (Read Colbert’s full speech here). He praised his fellow two-time honorees: “One more and we get a free hoagie!” he said. Colbert singled out several members of the audience, including billionaire philanthropist and conservative political backer David Koch. Colbert claimed that Koch had donated $5 million to the Colbert Super PAC; “And thanks to federal election law,” Colbert said, “there’s no way for you to know if that’s a joke.”

But Colbert saved his most provocative barrage for the ongoing controversial debate about birth control and the Catholic church, saying of Spanx founder Sara Blakely, “No one has done more to control women’s bodies than Sara Blakely, except Cardinal Timothy Dolan.” While Dolan’s face may have turned the color of his cap (it was hard to tell in the lighting), he laughed off the roast in style.

(MORE: Provocateur Stephen Colbert, a Member of the TIME 100)

When it came time for the evening’s toasts, Cardinal Dolan (read his TIME 100 tribute) led the field and revealed himself to be quite the jokester: “My name is Timothy ‘Cardinal’ Tebow,” Dolan said. “I had the pleasure to sit with Jeremy Lin. I asked him to pass me a roll and it’s still flying around the room somewhere.” Dolan then spoke eloquently about his faith, explaining that the most influential person in his life is Jesus.

Honoree Barbara Van Dahlen (read her TIME 100 tribute), a clinical psychologist who founded “Give an Hour,” an organization that provides free mental health care for veterans, spoke about her father, an immigrant who lied about his age to fight in the Pacific during World War II. She spoke about his forearms, which were covered in tattoos from his time in the service. She spoke of how he rolled his sleeves down during the Vietnam War to protect her and her siblings from the nasty public sentiment. Van Dahlen’s father died when she was 27 years old, and she said he would be proud that she was helping care for so many veterans of our most recent wars.

The final toast of the night came from Freeman Hrabowski (read his TIME 100 tribute), president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Hrabowski spoke about his parents, who grew up in the segregated South, and how his mother had access to books while her friends did not. His mother developed a love of reading: the more she read, the better at it she became; the better she became, the more she read. It was a glorious cycle that led his mother to become a teacher of literature. “Education makes the difference,” Hrabowski said. “Education transforms lives.”

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