The Al Smith dinner is one of the oddest traditions in presidential politics. By design, it interrupts the most cutthroat stage of the campaign, when the two candidates are killing each other in the last push before Election Day, for an evening of comity and comedy. They sit a seat apart from each other, with New York City’s cardinal as a buffer between them, and roast each other in 10-minute speeches for charity. Everyone laughs, everyone’s chummy, everything’s in good sport. Then they go back out on the campaign trail and kill each other again. The vibe isn’t the same as the sleazy White House Correspondents Dinner, which is dedicated to backslapping and stargazing among Washington’s political class, but there’s an element of overlap in the idea that politics — even at a moment of maximum discord — can lightly be set aside in the interest of socializing for an evening.
Tonight’s dinner is weirder than usual because of how nasty the campaign’s gotten. Clinton’s allies are running around accusing Trump of sexual assault; Trump’s allies are running around accusing Clinton’s husband of the same thing. Trump calls Clinton the epitome of corruption and says he’ll lock her up if elected; Clinton’s message distilled is that Trump is a would-be fascist who shouldn’t get within a thousand miles of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Somehow all of this will, supposedly, be summarily dropped for some good-natured japes and ribbing. Emphasis on “supposedly”: Trump has proved that he can take a joke at his own expense, but maybe not when it’s being aimed at him by a political enemy. And typically the roasting at this dinner involves plenty of self-deprecating gags by the candidates. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Trump goof on himself. It seems completely alien to his nature.
Point being, this could be endearing, with Trump seizing an opportunity to build some goodwill on the cheap by poking fun at himself, or it could turn into a total sh*tshow, with Clinton struggling to deliver a joke in a recognizably human way and Trump getting far, far too personal in his shots at her and Bill. It airs live on C-SPAN at 8:45 ET but I assume CNN and other cable nets will also break in to carry the speeches live. This is the last time the candidates will share a stage before the vote, which means it’s your last chance to watch Trump interact with a Clinton until, inevitably, he and Bill are playing golf together again next year. Here’s a thread for reaction.
While we wait, enjoy the surprisingly effective comedy stylings of Willard Mitt Romney from the 2012 dinner.