The other day the candidates finished up the last of three presidential debates after a year and a half of serious campaigning, and the only thing left on the calendar is Election Day itself. Now the final hours of the election are unfolding like the extended director’s cut of Return of the King: we’re ready for it to be over any time now, but there’s still much more than you need or want ahead.
So the 2016 Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner just happened, and because there are pageviews to get and 24 hours of cable to fill and politics are consumed and pored over by laymen like Westerosi genealogies, it wasn’t just another private white-tie fundraiser for New York Catholics and other elite figures to mingle and lightly roast one another; it was a public occasion open to anyone with cable or YouTube and another subject to fill conversation for the chattering classes we can now all count ourselves among thanks to the steady march of progress and the Internet.
Donald Trump gave his speech; Hillary Clinton gave hers. They each apparently gave two versions of their talks because that’s how people reacted to it. Ideology is a prism for splitting the light from any event into your preferred spectrum, and we’re lucky enough to have plenty of sources available to better crystalize our thoughts, whatever the ideology.
A charity fundraiser won’t change anyone’s mind at this point, and in that way, this was a minor public event. But other than the debates themselves, that true of every formal function happening the election’s last two months.
At the same time, there is utility to covering and examining this event because it’s a simulation of the sorts of things heads of state are expected to attend and perform at. If you can’t work a room full of people who aren’t part of your cheering base, you’re not an effective leader. If you can’t match the tone and expected norms of different audiences, that’s a problem for you when representing the United States federal government domestically and the United States itself internationally.
This should be far down on the hierarchy of principles, it isn’t going to be decisive to anyone, but it has legitimate value in evaluating the candidates by a scale rarely offered to the general public.
You can chalk this up to my existing biases, but Donald appeared unprepared, as if he didn’t know what most of his jokes were before reading them at the podium. The result was his punchlines sounded meaner without the lift humor normally would give to soften their landing. One of Donald’s most glaring flaws is his lack of competence outside his narrow comfort zone and apparent lack of interest in working to improve that. This again illustrated that limitation.
But his jokes also seemed to be the sort of blunt meanness that plays well to his base and at his rallies and not anyone else.
The ‘Pardon me‘ joke was the most distilled version of this. That was good, that was funny. The second half of the joke wasn’t really clever and made explicit what is supposed to be implicit: ‘when I’m president, I might pardon you for your crimes’.
The immediate audience got it immediately, which would have clued in anyone not in the room that something funny just happened; he didn’t need to go on. In fact, that’s the point of humor as a political weapon: you save the meanest part for people to connect in their own heads, so you’re never leaving the realm of civility yourself, just showing others the way for themselves.
It’s often said he ‘knows how to read a room’, but the truth is that’s only if the room is full of true believers who can always be energized by saying, ‘We’re will build the wall and Mexico is going to pay for it!’ I admit my prejudice in thinking that his rally audience is not savvy enough to work out the joke if only given the first part, but the things people at his rallies laugh at are the humor of blunt cruelty. His humor is Hobbesian, often literally mocking the infirmities of others as in the case of the New York Times reporter while campaigning and deaf actress Marlee Matlin in his private life.
Meanwhile, Clinton is certainly comfortable in this sort of situation. Maybe too comfortable, right?
If you already feel that way, you see Henry Kissinger sitting there yucking it up and so is the Catholic Church archbishop who tried to keep sexual abuse victims from getting any recompense by hiding $57 million. Everywhere the political, media, and wealthy elites so cozy with each other personally despite being supposedly adversarial in other situations.
So I understand if it seems not important to connect with these people, and if you’re a someone who dislikes Clinton already, her success in this format is not a plus. You may even view Donald being a rude jerk as speaking truth to power similar to Stephen Colbert’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner performance and his disregard of civil norms as refreshing, puncturing the hypocrisy.
But I think it is important to do well in this format because unlike Colbert, when you’re president, that’s who you have to work with and know how to communicate with to get things done in the United States. Even though it’s a relatively minor event, Clinton seemed to put in enough work to know the timing of her lines so that even if she isn’t as natural a comedian as Barack Obama, she delivered her writers’ jokes well and knocked Donald around without—to me—ever veering out of the realm of good-natured roast.
Her team was able to come up with jokes that would land well in the room because she invested in making fun of herself and her own issues to get some goodwill on her side before being critical of anyone else. Donald’s only ‘self’-deprecation was aimed at his wife, and then he went on to calling his opponent a corrupt hater of Catholics. There are norms in politics as with every other profession and flaunting them just because you can doesn’t accomplish much.
By playing to the room, Clinton played to the larger audience, too: her jokes are easier to share on social media and in newspaper and blog writeups with the accompaniment of laughter signaling ‘this was funny’. Perhaps Donald’s supporters enjoy seeing the animosity in the room, but he could have come off looking good universally if he’d stuck to less acerbic humor and sat there laughing good-naturedly as Clinton went in on him. ‘It’s a rough campaign, and we’ve had a rough debate, but we’re still Americans with more in common than we have differences’ would be the message. It wasn’t.
Finally, Clinton ended with the standard sincere appeal of hope and unity, all while subtweeting Donald, complete with a quote from the Pope.
It was on its face a powerful reminder to the (white) Catholics in the audience how appeals to fear and othering were used in the 20th Century to place people like Al Smith outside of acceptable American society, consider them untrustworthy, and try to keep more out of the United States. She used Pope Francis’ wall comment appropriately to reframe the anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim rhetoric without having to directly say so, and in the process reminded conservative Catholics of how the Bishop of Rome was once critical of Donald—as well as that Donald responded by calling the pope ‘disgraceful‘. There’s an Internet meme about Donald playing Nth dimensional chess, but the rhetorical accomplishment of attacking your opponent without ever mentioning him, and using the two most beloved figures at that Catholic fundraiser to do it is something else.
In the end, the dinner wasn’t anything important in itself, but it was another illustration of the strengths and flaws of both candidates, which in my mind highlights much of Donald’s flaws on a personal level and some of Clinton’s less appreciated strengths, including her team.