Al Smith Dinner I attended was different than one I read about

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The Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner has always been the most underrated night of the campaign season.

Two presidential candidates. New York City. The Waldorf Astoria. Lots of jokes, and invariably very good ones at that. And if you’re lucky enough to get a media credential, you can practically walk right up to a Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE and snap a fitting photo like this:



The tradition of the Al Smith dinner goes back to 1945, the year after Smith — the first Catholic presidential candidate — passed away.

And almost every election cycle since, America is treated to an evening not of personal attacks and harsh rhetoric, but self-deprecating humor and a little benign roasting of one’s opponent, all while raising millions for needy kids via Catholic charities. It’s almost always the last event where the presidential candidates share a stage before the election.

The aforementioned scene of the harmony being described was largely what came to fruition on Thursday night. Trump and Clinton were funny, biting, charming (yes, Trump was actually charming at times).


“You know the President told me to stop whining. But I really have to say the media is even more biased than ever before. You want the proof? Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaThe Hill’s Morning Report – Treasury, Fed urge more spending, lending to ease COVID-19 wreckage Budowsky: Michelle Obama or Tammy Duckworth for VP Michelle Obama urges class of 2020 to couple protesting with mobilizing, voting MORE gives a speech. And everyone loves it, it’s fantastic. They think she’s absolutely great. My wife, Melania, gives the exact same speech and people get on her case. And I don’t get it. I don’t know why. And it wasn’t her fault … Oh, I’m in trouble when I go home tonight. She didn’t know about that one.”

“And even tonight, with all of the heated back and forth between my opponent and me at the debate last night, we have proven that we can actually be civil to each other. In fact, just before taking the dais, Hillary accidentally bumped into me and she very simply said, ‘Pardon me.’ (long pause to let the crowd get the joke, which took a few seconds). “And I very quietly replied, let me talk to you about that after I get into office.”

“It’s great to be here with 1,000 wonderful people. Or, as I call it, a small, intimate dinner with some friends. Or, as Hillary calls it, her largest crowd of the season.”

“You know, last night, I called Hillary a nasty woman. But this stuff is all relevant after listening to Hillary rattle along and on and on. I don’t think so badly of Rosie O’Donnell anymore. In fact, I’m actually starting to like Rosie a lot.”


“It’s a treat for all of you, too, because I charge a lot for speeches like this.” 

“I’ve got to say, there are a lot of friendly faces in this room, people I’ve been privileged to know and to work with — I just want to put you all in a basket of adorables.”

“People look at the Statue of Liberty and they see a proud symbol of our history as a nation of immigrants. A beacon of hope for people around the world. Donald sees the Statue of Liberty and sees a 4. Maybe a 5 if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair.”

“And Donald, after listening to your speech, I will also enjoy listening to Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence posts, deletes photo of Trump campaign staff without face masks, not social distancing Pence threatens to deploy military if Pennsylvania governor doesn’t quell looting Pence on Floyd: ‘No tolerance for racism’ in US MORE deny that you ever gave it.”

If the night was left to jokes like those told by each of the candidates, the headlines would be something like, “Trump, Clinton show lighter side at Al Smith Dinner.”

But Trump veered off onto a road Manhattan’s richest 1 percent didn’t like very much.

“We’ve learned so much from WikiLeaks. For example, Hillary believes that it is vital to deceive the people by having one public policy and a totally different policy in private.”

Before Trump could get to the punchline, some in the crowd booed. Loudly. One guy about 10 feet from me yelled several times, “You’re a jackass!”

Trump pressed on, knowing some were turning on him quickly.

“That’s OK, I don’t know who they’re angry at, Hillary, you or I. For example, here she is tonight, in public, pretending not to hate Catholics.”

But as The Guardian described and my notes show, Clinton got some booing of her own. Not with the vitriol and volume Trump’s detractors displayed, but it was apparent.

The Guardian listed these jokes under a section called: “Some of Clinton’s would-be zingers elicited a mixture of laughter and booing”:

Clinton: “You notice there is no teleprompters here tonight, which is probably smart, because it may be you saw Donald … dismantle his own. Maybe it is harder when you are translating from the original Russian.”

Clinton: “I have deep respect for people like Kellyanne Conway. She is working day and night for Donald, and because she is a contractor, he is probably not even going to pay her.”

And this one under a one-joke section called, “And awkward is the word for this Clinton line”:

Clinton: “If Donald does win, it will be awkward at the annual presidents’ day photo when all the former presidents gather at the White House, and not just with Bill. How is Barack going to get past the Muslim ban?”

USA Today summed up the evening thusly with this accurate headline:

“Trump, Clinton draw laughs, boos at Al Smith dinner”

Piers Morgan, formerly of CNN, summed matters up nicely on Twitter:

Having been there, that USA Today headline and Piers Tweet, respectively, are 100 percent correct. But we live in a world of myopic media possessed by all-things Trump.

No matter: All you’re going to read and watch all of Friday was about how Trump got booed, Trump was harsh, Trump blew it again.

What won’t be mentioned is the context: Republicans — especially those named Trump — aren’t popular in New York and certainly with the wine and cheese crowd at the Waldorf last night. And even Clinton got some boos and awkward reactions. Oh, and the event raised $6 million for needy children, an all-time record.  

Microcosm: Coverage of Thursday night’s event is a classic example of why there’s a serious trust issue with the press these days.

Here you have an example of Trump making remarks to an audience comprised of Manhattan’s crème de la crème — many tickets were $3000 each at face value — and the national media that’s based there, from which we’ll say generously Clinton wins 80 percent of the vote.

A recent poll shows Trump down 21 points in his home state of New York. The same poll has him down 70-18 in New York City. Of course he got booed.

This New York Times headline explains why:

Donald Trump Heckled by New York Elite at Charity Dinner

“New York Elite.”

If there’s one group the Trump brand doesn’t appeal to, it’s the elite — with a close second being the other “e” word: “establishment.”

But Clinton didn’t exactly embrace at times the spirit of the evening either. The USA Today headline captures what the feeling on the ground was: Both Trump and Clinton should have dialed back a few of the jokes.

Muscle memory from a bruising campaign everyone can’t wait to be over ruled instead. Captain Obvious says these two simply do not like either other and therefore can’t resist going over whatever line that even a traditional charity dinner draws in the sand.

But the media decided what the narrative would be the moment the first hecklers gave Trump the first Bronx cheer:

He’s the mean one. He can’t even do jokes right without offending all those big fans of his in the room.

Per CNN’s Charles Blow, also a New York Times columnist:

Who would think the 2016 Al Smith Dinner would encapsulate the prism our media sees this campaign in so perfectly?

A prism where only one candidate exists.

Because as we’re seeing on television and in print today, it just somehow did.

Concha is a media reporter for The Hill.


The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill

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