Some of this is very funny. Some of serious and quite interesting. And some is oh-my-God jaw-dropping.
It's the two speeches by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at last night's annual Al Smith Dinner which raises money for Catholic Charities.
Personally, I've never especially cared if a presidential candidate was "funny." They have a staff and comedy writers writing the jokes. If the politician can deliver the jokes well, then swell, it'll be entertaining -- but meaningless. Unless it's deceptive, making you think an awful person is warm and a hoot. At best, it's helpful to know if a politician can be self-deprecating.
But this year, the Al Smith Dinner was fascinating, and for reasons that transcend the normal lively, charming, good-natured evening.
I'd read that Donald Trump did horribly at the event, but wanted to see for myself. And as I watched, I thought he did fairly well. There were several jokes that were even extremely funny -- one was particularly wonderful about the unfairness of the press. (Though it must be noted that it was at the expense of his wife...) So, it was fine.
It was fine -- until suddenly the bottom fell out. It started with an awkward joke that falls a bit flat, and then kicked into gear when out of the blue he refers to Hillary as "corrupt." You can tell how bad it turned by looking at the elegant patrician behind him in his white tie finery and seeing his face go from a soft chuckle to "BOINNGG!!" with his eyes popping out like in a Warner Bros. cartoon in half-a-second flat. (And no, I am not exaggerating. As you watch the tape, he's to Trump's direct left.) And as Trump went on, you can hear the crowd get restless. (It's worth noting here that the audience at the Smith Dinner is largely high society, very wealthy, and mostly conservative Republican. When you're the Republican candidate for president and lose this crowd, you've done something horrible.) And you know it's over when, first, the Cardinal who oversees much of the event goes impassive and involuntarily turns his body away, and then, second, the audience begins booing.
What's odd through all this wondering how it came to be. Who thought this was funny, or proper at this event, or would go over? Did the writers just go ahead and write this without any Trump input? That's unlikely. Was it done at his direction? That's more possible, but it's still strange that no one said, "Really, Donald, we just can't do this, we really can't." But maybe they did, or didn't care. Or maybe at this point, they all actually do think it's great and the hilarious thing to do.
After this, Hillary Clinton spoke, and she generally did very well. Not all the jokes worked, but most did. And notably, she was very self-effacing, starting with her opening joke about her stamina, and especially a wonderful joke about her feeling honored that Trump would actually think she was on performance-enhancing drugs. (That's funny on its own, but it's not the punch line.) And she got a lot of jokes in at the expense of Trump, and though pointed, they never sank to the level of awkwardly uncomfortable.
Through the jabs, Trump has a big smile on his face, though you rarely quite seem him actually laugh. (She, on the other hand, appears to be guffawing at the jokes about her. Even if she's putting some or all of it on, she at least has the good grace to seem like she's enjoying it all.) But however thin the Trump smile is, it positively beams in comparison to the reaction we see from Rudy Giuliiani. For a couple jokes at his expense, and one about Trump, he sits there so stone-faced that Buster Keaton would take notes.
What is fascinating, though, are the final comments at the end of each speech, what the candidates always turn serious to wrap things up. Trump's words are perfectly fine. And so are Secretary Clinton's -- but -- what it so intriguing about her closing is that she not only picks two topics that clearly would be deeply meaningful to the audience, but also it is blatantly obvious that as richly heartwarming as they are...underneath they are dagger-like digs at Trump. But because of what she's saying on the surface, everyone is painting into a corner of embracing and appreciating them. It's incredibly deft work.
The first topic is praise of Al Smith, the centerpiece of the evening. And she talks about how meaningful he was, being the first Catholic to ever be a major party nominee for president, and how he faced bitter prejudice. It's a warm, ingratiating speech that everyone there can only admire -- yet what she says as she goes on is so clear that she's talking about bigotry against people purely for their religion. And it's clear she's talking about Trump. It's masterful.
And the other topic is when she goes on the sing the praises of Pope Francis. Now, obviously, there is no way this roomful of people raising millions for Catholic charities can't help but be enthralled by her lauding the Catholic pope. Yet all the things she praises him for are his speeches which she quotes that are all direct digs and Trump, including the Pope's blunt words about how we should be building bridges, not walls. It's impeccable writing. And when the camera show's Trump's reaction, there is no way on earth he can be angry at the Pontiff's words of nurturing, most especially in a room for Catholic charities. But it's obvious he is not happy.
Here's the event. Most of this is jokes, and most of the jokes are pretty good. But the whole thing is...well, quite notable. This is a warning of what happens when you have a big party and just too much boo's.
If you want to start with Trump is the first to speak, jump to the 7:30 mark. Hillary Clinton ends at 44:30.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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