One of the great traditions in American politics, at least during the more normal presidential election years, is the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation’s dinner in New York City. Named for the four-time New York governor who became the first Catholic presidential nominee as the Democratic standard-bearer in the ’28 race, the foundation raises money for Catholic charities and hosts an annual swanky big-bucks white-tie affair that always attracts the cream of New York’s political and business and media and social elites, and every leap year’s dinner features both presidential contenders taking a night off from the campaign’s acrimony to make self-deprecating jokes about themselves and lighthearted joshes about the opponent.
In this crazy election year, of course, it didn’t work out that way.
This year the dinner was inconveniently scheduled the day after what turned out to be an especially acrimonious debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican rival Donald Trump, and both candidates were facing a tough crowd. Some hacked computers files made public by Wikileaks have recently revealed some of Clinton’s staffers making anti-Catholic remarks, and the New York press has recently quoted some high-ranking church official’s taking exception to Clinton’s maximalist positions on abortion. Trump’s unpopularity with New York’s political and business and media and social elites is more longstanding, and his recent rhetoric about how they’re all part of a system rigged against him hasn’t helped. Throw in that Trump doesn’t do self-deprecation or light-hearted joshing, and Clinton has no apparent sense of humor of any sort, and the affair was off to a bad start before the first glass of wine was served.
Trump was given the first opportunity to prove how very charming and witty and likable he was, but for some reason chose not to even try. Coming on to polite applause, Trump got a laugh by pointing out a couple of pols and talking about they used to love him back when he was a Democrat, got another laugh by noting how many people in the room have known and loved for so many years, bragged how they use to seek his donations, then groused that they all hate him now that he’s a Republican. Noting the tradition of making self-deprecating jokes, Trump got a few laughs about how uncharacteristic that would be, did some joshing with the Cardinal seated nearby how they both have fancy buildings on Fifth Avenue, and humbly conceded that “nobody can compete with God, is that right? No contest.” He then launched into Clinton with a joke about her bumping into him and saying “pardon me,” and how he had offered him an ambassadorship to Iraq or Afghanistan, and noting that she usually charged more for speeches to rich people, all of which was in the spirit of the event and got a few polite chuckles. Then he compared Clinton unfavorably to his long-time tabloid nemesis Rosie O’Donnell, which clearly made the crowd uncomfortable, and made a joke about how the assembled media were working on Clinton’s behalf, which came off rather bitter.
He shifted back to self-deprecating mode with a joke about how the media will praise Michelle Obama for making a great speech but criticize his wife for making the exact same speech, which got a good laugh, but it was mostly deprecating his wife, and isn’t likely to help his gender gap in the polls. From that point on the joshing was noticeably less light-hearted, as Trump started snarling jokes about Clinton telling her father confessor at the Federal Bureau of Investigation “she couldn’t remember 39 times,” and such gems as “Hillary is so corrupt, she got kicked off the Watergate commission. How corrupt do you have to be? Pretty corrupt.” There was some further criticism of her corruption that didn’t seem a joke at all, then a line about how she was invited by e-mail but didn’t learn until Wikileaks revealed, then another non-joke about Clinton taking public and private positions, which set up what he seemed to think was a joke about Clinton “pretending not to hate Catholics.”
The material probably would have killed at one of Trump’s rallies, where the crowds are adorned in “Make America Great Again” ball caps and “Trump That Bitch” t-shirts, but the white-tied and elegantly gowned crowd of New York’s elites were loudly booing him by that point, which kind of deflated a closing joke about “Hillary Clinton’s isn’t laughing as much as the rest of us.” He made a slight recovery with some kind words about the good works done by Catholic charities, and left to some straining-to-be-polite applause, but the press was already rushing to print negative reviews about Trump’s “screed.”
Few politicians in American history have ever had greater need to come across as witty and charming and likable than Clinton, and we’ll have to concede she was savvy enough to take full advantage of the opportunity. She started by noting that Al Smith’s running mate was from Arkansas and a boyhood hero of her husband, which seemed to endear her to the Catholics in the crowd, then launched into the old self-deprecating shtick with a joke about she’s taken time off her “rigorous nap schedule” to be there and provided her own joke about she usually charges big bucks for a speech to rich people. She got a few laughs with a subtle joke about being up against a stained-glass ceiling, bigger laughs an inside-New York joke about the mayor and the governor’s rivalry, polite twitters with a josh about formal pantsuits, flattered the crowd that they were a “basket of adorables,” and then launched into Trump. She invited him to stand up and shout “wrong” while she was talking and had something about him letting her take the stage in “a peaceful transition of power,” which got a few laughs, and remarked that after hearing Trump’s speech she was “looking forward to hearing Mike Pence deny that he ever gave it,” which even we thought pretty clever. The jokes got more barbed at that point, suggesting that Trump would think the dinner had been rigged, and how he looked at the Statue of Liberty “and saw a 4, maybe a 5 if she dropped the torch and tablet and changed her hair.”
The crowd was a little nervous at that point, even though they cheered her line about how “a good number for a woman would be 45,” as in the 45th president, but Clinton shrewdly shifted back to self-deprecation, joking about how it took a village to right her jokes and how she’s been the life of every party she’s ever attended, “and I’ve been to three.” Veering back to attack mode, she spoke of how difficult it is for Trump to read from a teleprompter when he has to translate from the original Russian, and how sensible mainstream Republicans are now known as “Hillary supporters,” then offered a bipartisan jape about how at least the election will be over. She tossed a few friendly jabs at the assembled Democratic grandees, a less friendly jab at former Republican New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani, and responded to Trump’s recent allegations that she’s using performance enhancing drugs with a joke about he hadn’t prepared, another joke about Trump’s reputation for stiffing his contractors, another joke about Pence, a line about shortening the election season that got applause even from Trump, another sharp jab about Trump’s feud with Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. Much of it pushed up against the event’s collegial traditions enough to render the laughter slightly nervous, and the quality of jokes varied wildly, but the delivery was low-key and amiable enough that even the pro-Trump outskirts of the press will have a hard time calling it a “screed.”
Clinton ended with a more serious few moments about the anti-Catholic prejudice that Al Smith faced during that long-ago presidential race, threw in some lines about Pope Francis’ recent remarks about “building bridges instead of walls,” and seemed to assure the assembled Bishops and Archbishops and Cardinals that whatever their disagreements regarding abortion she didn’t hate Catholics. Off course the political and business and media and social elites were already assured she didn’t hate them, so she walked off to a much bigger hand than Trump received, at which we point we were composing our own joke about which candidate had the bigger hands. All in all we’d say she came off somewhat more witty and charming and likable than Trump, which is not saying much, and at this point in this crazy election we’d say that’s pretty darned bad news for Trump. America deserves better than these two jokers, and so does the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation’s fancy-schmantzy dinners.
— Bud Norman