Even though the third and final presidential debate, which had been classified by many people as the most hostile so far, had indicated an acrimonious escalation of attacks between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, just a few days back the candidates proved to the public that they could laugh with (if not partially at) each other in a fairly good natured manner. The Alfred E. Smith Charity Dinner on Friday, which was organized to raise funds for Catholic charities, was one of the few times Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump signed on to share a stage outside an actual debate. The opportunity to engage in some political satire, as well as thinly veiled character attacks (masquerading as jokes, as of course this is white tie event) was not passed up by either camp. The press coverage of the event agreed that both sides landed some solid punches, while completely biting the dust on others.
The New York Times entitled their article “Donald Trump Heckled by New York Elite at Charity Dinner,” surmising that while some of his primary jokes were perfectly executed, as his roast progressed Trump “set off on a blistering, grievance-filled performance that translated poorly to the staid setting, stunning many of the well-heeled guests who had filed into the Waldorf Astoria hotel for an uncommon spectacle: an attempted détente in a campaign so caustic that the candidates, less than 24 hours earlier, declined to shake hands on a debate stage.” Clinton on the other hand was not eventually heckled by the crowd, although some of her jokes did not perform as successfully as others (such as when Clinton referenced her earlier criticized statement by saying she wanted to put everyone at the dinner in a “basket of adorables.”) While some of Trump’s barbs, especially the self-depricating ones (i.e. when he said the media was biased and claimed “You want the proof? Michelle Obama gives a speech, and everyone loves it. My wife, Melania, gives the exact same speech and people get on her case.”) gained huge applause and laughter from the audience (even Melania herself uncharacteristically amused by the quip), others elicited actual boos from the audience (“Hillary is so corrupt she got kicked off the Watergate commission.”) All in all, not the best night for Trump even though he did prove that for at least a small fraction of the time he could be civil. To his credit, the Times did note that Trump did genuinely laugh at some of Clinton’s material as it pertained to her health issues.
The Washington Post observed in their coverage that while the event could have been used as a “triumph of both candidates’ speech writers who could joke their way through the tension,” it instead became a “grippingly awkward affair.” They in particular noted the historical importance of this election’s hostility, pointing out that even in their most caustic moments neither the Obama/McCain matchup in ’08 nor the Obama/Romney competition in ’12 proved to be even remotely as hateful as this current challenge (quoting Romney from 2012 when he said “it would be easy to let a healthy competition give way to the personal and the petty but fortunately, we don’t carry the burden of disliking one another.”) Personal and petty indeed the night was as both candidates (one so more than the other) engaged in bitingly personal attacks at a dinner which traditionally has tried to keep politics out of the mix.
What does this mean in the long term? Well with just over two weeks before the nation will head to the polls to elect one of these candidates leader of the free world, it was a final reminder that this election is without a doubt the most hotly contested in our nation’s history. For any undecideds weighing the merits of each in order to select the lesser of two evils (i.e. staunch Republicans, diehard Bernie supporters) it might have been just enough to tip them over the edge in favor of the obviously better behaved and informed candidate Clinton.
You can see the best and worst jokes of the dinner here (via Washington Post): https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/politics/there-were-some-awkward-moments-at-the-al-smith-dinner/2016/10/20/165da1cc-973a-11e6-9cae-2a3574e296a6_video.html