Society

October reprieve: Trump, Clinton try to lighten up at Al Smith Dinner

Finding it difficult to get out of campaign mode, candidates offer a mixed bag to high profile event

October reprieve: Trump, Clinton try to lighten up at Al Smith Dinner

Jeffrey Bruno for Aleteia

Just 24 hours after their tense third debate, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump made their last public appearance together before Election Day, with a chance to give the American public a reprieve from what has widely been considered a mud fight of an election season.

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The Democratic and Republican candidates headlined the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel Thursday. Sitting on either side of New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan on a five-tier dais, the candidates both got a turn at the podium—Trump first and then Clinton.

Carrying on the tradition to invite the major candidates during a presidential election year, the Archdiocese of New York brought together some 1500 of the city’s well-heeled Catholics and others to listen to the candidates, the cardinal, and Alfred E. Smith IV, the great-grandson of the former New York governor and first Catholic to run for president on a major ticket.

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Other guests on the dais included Trump’s wife, Melania (but not Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton); former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; New York State and City officials; and a bevy of philanthropists, business leaders and television journalists.

Smith set the tone in introducing the evening’s program: “Normally, at this point, I’d ask everyone to turn off their phones, but Secretary Clinton assured me that Donald is free to tweet as much as he wants,” he said. “Tonight, we watch the two candidates do the most difficult thing they’ve been asked to do this whole campaign. I’m not talking about being funny—I’m talking about being civil.”

Trump took the podium and set out to do something he’s not known for: a stand-up routine.

“Even tonight, with all of the heated back and forth with my opponent at the debate last night we have proven that we can actually be civil with each other,” the real estate developer turned office-seeker began. “In fact, just before taking the dais, Hillary accidentally bumped into me, and she very civilly said, ‘Pardon me.’ And I very politely replied, ‘Let me talk to you about that after I get into office.’”

But things took a turn when Trump announced, presumably still in joke mode, “Hillary is so corrupt, she got kicked off the Watergate commission.” Boos rose up from the audience as soon as they heard the word “corrupt,” and only got louder and more intense from that point. It was hard for Trump to regain momentum, and his one-liners were more reminiscent of his stump speeches, citing Clinton’s missing emails and her belief that it’s okay to “deceive the people” by having both a public policy and a different policy in private.

“That’s okay,” Trump said in response to the crowd’s reaction. “I don’t know who they’re angry at, Hillary, you or I.”

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The boos and shouting only intensified as he continued: “Here she is tonight in public pretending she doesn’t hate Catholics.”

But he salvaged his time at the podium before his time was up by applauding the work of the Al Smith Foundation in helping needy children.

“We can agree on the need to stand up to anti-Catholic bias, to defend religious liberty and to create a culture that celebrates life,” he declaimed. “America is in many ways divided like it’s never been before, and the great religious leaders here tonight give us all an example we can follow. We’re living in a time and age that we never thought possible before. The vicious barbarism we read about in history books but never thought we’d see it in our so-called modern day world. Who would have thought we’d be witnessing what we’re witnessing today. We’ve got to be very strong, very smart and have to come together not only as a nation but a world community.”

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And Al Smith brought levity back into the room after Trump sat down, saying, “As Ronald Reagan would say, ‘There you go again.’” When he introduced Clinton, she got a much warmer reception from the crowd. The former secretary of state began with de rigeur self-deprecation (“This is such a special event that I took a break from my rigorous nap schedule to be here”), but she segued into a high-minded lecture that made several not-so-subtle references to her opponent’s campaign platform and style.

When she spoke about delivering jokes without a teleprompter, she noted that “Trump dismantled his teleprompter the other day.”

“I get that,” she said. “They’re hard to keep up with, and I’m sure it’s even harder when you’re translating from the original Russian.”

Returning to that well later, while comparing her health with Trump’s, she quipped: “Donald really is healthy as a horse—you know, the one Vladimir Putin rides around on.”

In the end, Clinton’s criticism of Trump, veiled as stand-up, was just as barbed, if more sophisticated. She spoke of having in common several accomplishments with the Republican candidate. “I’ve tried to inspire young people by showing them that with resilience and hard work anything is possible, and you’re doing the same. A third-grade teacher told me that one of her students refused to turn in his homework because it was ‘under audit.’”

Turning serious, she commented, “There are a lot of people in this room tonight whose parents or grandparents came here as immigrants, made a life for themselves took advantage of the American dream and took advantage of the greatest system that has ever been created in the history of the world to unleash the individual talents, energy and ambition of anyone willing to work hard.”

She spoke of how groundbreaking Al Smith’s candidacy was in his time. “People even claimed the Holland Tunnel [under the Hudson River] was a secret passageway to connect Rome and America, to help the pope rule our country.

“Those appeals—appeals to fear and division—can cause us to treat each other as the ‘other.’ Rhetoric like that makes it harder for us to see each other, to respect each other, to listen to each other, and certainly much harder to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Clinton went on to say that one need not be Catholic to “be inspired by the humility and heart” of Pope Francis, “or to embrace his message—his message about rejecting a mindset of hostility, his calls to reduce inequality, his warnings about climate change, his appeal that we build bridges not walls.”

In perhaps a veiled reference to Trump’s business, she said she’s convinced that “our greatest monument on this earth won’t be what we build, but the lives we touch.”

Far from receiving boos, Clinton got a standing ovation, with wild cheers from several quarters of the Grand Ballroom.

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But Cardinal Dolan, clearing his throat as he prepared to offer a closing prayer, ended the evening on an up note. Excusing himself for a bit of congestion, he surmised that he was coming down with a cold.

“Which is understandable considering that I’ve spent the last two hours sitting between the two candidates, which is probably the iciest place on the planet.”

Trump and Clinton join a long list of notable speakers, including Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, and Bob Hope. The dinner began inviting the two major presidential candidates in 1960 and has seldom had a presidential year without them. On a couple of occasions, however, the candidates were replaced due to controversy, such as when Cardinal John O’Connor disinvited Bill Clinton, presumably over the president’s veto of a bill banning partial birth abortion.

This year, the dinner kept both of the main speakers in spite of “October surprises” arising in both camps: Trump’s lewd talk on a suddenly-discovered tape from 11 years ago, and leaked emails in which key players in Clinton’s campaign discussed ways to influence the teaching of the Catholic Church to neutralize its opposition to the progressive political agenda.

But, as if to gently remind the candidates that some of the things the Church cherishes should not be sacrificed to political ambition, the cardinal spoke of the many people who will benefit from the record $6 million raised by the $3000-a-plate event: among them, Mexican immigrants who learn English in Church-run programs and women who are encouraged to preserve the nascent life in their wombs, rather than resort to abortion.

Shawn Neal

John Burger

John Burger is a news editor at Aleteia. He formerly worked at the National Catholic Register and Catholic New York in the Archdiocese of New York. He has also written for a wide variety of Catholic publications.