As Steve Martin once said, comedy is not pretty — and neither is comity, or rather attempts at both by people whose hearts aren’t really into it. The purpose of inviting the two major-party presidential candidates to the Al Smith Dinner is to allow them to demonstrate a self-deprecating sense of humor and to give others a chance to see that they both have humanity beyond politics. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump turned it into a roast that didn’t bother with the conceit of comity to disguise their bitterness, turning Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s banquet into what NPR called “a three-alarm fire.”
Trump got booed for his remarks about Clinton pretending not to hate Catholics for an evening, after offering some remarks more in the spirit of the gathering:
— ABC News (@ABC) October 21, 2016
The Republican nominee even scored laughter at the expense of his wife Melania, who drew sharp criticism after she plagiarized portions of a Michelle Obama speech in her 2016 address to the Republican National Convention. “Michelle Obama gives a speech and everyone loves it, it’s fantastic,” Trump said. “They think she’s absolutely great. My wife Melania gives the exact same speech, and people get on her case!”
But then things went south. Trump called Hillary Clinton corrupt several times, and not in a joking kind of way. “Hillary believes that it’s vital to deceive the people by having one public policy and a totally different policy in private.” That remark drew boos.
And there were even more boos when Trump alluded to recent emails dumped by WikiLeaks showing Clinton staffers disparaging conservative Catholics. “Here she is tonight, in public, pretending not to hate Catholics.”
The Donna Brazile gag had some promise, actually, but the setup flopped because no one else was laughing by that time.
Clinton didn’t do much better, according to CNN, although she didn’t draw boos. Even so, the audience couldn’t wait to leave:
Clinton cut less close to the bone than Trump, but her speech also seemed to lack the generosity the evening requires.
They struggled to disguise the anger, bitterness and sheer open dislike that has pulsed through their recriminatory White House race, perhaps not surprisingly since he has threatened to throw her in jail and she says he’s a threat to the republic.
An evening known for sharp humor that often goes right up to the line but rarely crosses it quickly degenerated into an uncomfortable experience. They just imported the acrimony of Wednesday night’s debate to a new venue.
In short, the evening became an apt metaphor for the campaign.
In most cycles, this event would work well; in fact, it did in 2012, when both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama took a night off from slugging it out on the campaign trail to at least offer some kind words about their respective families. Given the dynamics of this cycle and the two candidates, this looked like a trainwreck waiting to happen — and from the glimpses of the audience, it appears that trainwrecks are less entertaining than people would imagine. Metaphor for the campaign, indeed.