Review: The Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner: October 18, 2012
Just two days after their rough and tumble town hall debate. President Obama and Governor Romney attended a glittering white tie dinner in New York City to trade good-natured jokes and barbs and raise money for the New York Archdiocese’s charitable outreach programs. It was a great evening, both candidates performed well, and, at $2500/ticket, a record sum of $5 million was raised by the 1600 guests. It was an evening of civility and humor in a sea of anger and negativism.
The event is dedicated to the memory of New York Governor Al Smith who, in 1928, became the first Catholic ever to be nominated by a major party for president. The dinner is still overseen by his descendants, while hosted by New York’s own Cardinal Timothy Dolan. This is the 64th annual event. The first presidential candidates to attend were JFK and Richard Nixon in 1960.
This year’s event began in controversy. Several Conservative Catholics criticized the cardinal for inviting President Obama, whose position on issues like abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage are at odds with the Church. The cardinal settled the matter, writing in his blog: “If I only sat down with people who agreed with me, and I with them, or with those who were saints, I’d be taking all my meals alone.”
Governor Romney went first. Standing at the dais in his immaculate white tie and tails, he said: ”A campaign requires a lot of wardrobe changes: blue jeans in the morning, suits for a luncheon fundraiser, sport coat for dinner. But it’s nice to finally relax and wear what Ann and I wear around the house.”
He also chided the media, suggesting tomorrow’s headline would be: “Obama embraced by Catholics, while Romney dines with more rich people.”
One of his best lines was when he talked about President Obama, coming down to the final months of his term, surveying the Waldorf banquet room with so many rich and important people in their finery, “…and you wonder if he’s thinking: ‘So little time, and so much to redistribute.’”
Governor Romney admitted he was uncomfortable as a joke teller and how he hoped Vice President Biden would be seated in the front row: “He’ll laugh at anything.”
Bringing a little Catholic inside humor to the table, Romney wondered if, when the Lord gave St. Peter the “Keys to My Church”, St. Peter responded: “Lord, you didn’t build that.”
He went on to say that in keeping with the Sesame Street Theme the campaign has taken on, “The president’s remarks are brought to you by the letter ‘O’, and the number ‘$16 trillion’.”
Romney said that when asked how he prepared for these key debates, he replied that as a lifelong Mormon, he “…abstained from alcohol for 65 years.” He also said the key to debate success was: “…finding the biggest straw man available, and attacking him mercilessly. Big Bird never saw it coming.”
He concluded that both candidates have important people they rely upon. “I have my beautiful wife Ann. He’s got Bill Clinton.”
The crowd gave him a well-deserved standing ovation.
President Obama came on, while everyone was stilling standing. He asked them to “Take your seats, please, Otherwise, Clint Eastwood will come up here and start yelling at them.
Referring to his lackluster performance at the first debate, he said: “There are worse things that can happen to you on your anniversary than to forget to buy your wife a gift.”
Referring to Governor Romney, he said: “’Mitt’ is actually the governor’s middle name. (Pause) I wish I could use my middle name.”
In reference to the governor’s mixed reaction to his overseas trip last summer, the president said: “World affairs are a challenge for any candidate. After my last foreign trip, I was attacked as a celebrity because I was popular with our overseas allies. I’m impressed with how well Governor Romney avoided that problem.”
Renewing his school days ties to New York, he said: “Today, I went shopping in some midtown stores. Governor Romney went shopping for some midtown stores.”
The president had a Joe Biden line too. He said: “Sometimes I hear that I’m getting old. And that I’ve lost my sparkle and my step. And I say: ‘Settle down, Joe. I’m trying to run a Cabinet meeting here.’”
The president also received a “well done” and standing ovation.
The Smith family spokesman, Al Smith IV, also had a few good lines. Referring to Romney’s famous “binders full of women” comment, he welcomed the ladies present and said: “I’m so glad to see you all got out of those binders.”
He had one for president Obama too: “It must be difficult to face Governor Romney, a man who has produced more sons than you have jobs.”
And one for the cardinal, who sat between Obama and Romney, he said it was appropriate for them to sit that way because (referring to the cardinal’s girth), “…they are separated by a great expanse.”
The cardinal had a few things to say as well. Referring again to his girth, he said “I had hoped to sit next to Gov. Chris Christy. I think I would have looked better.”
He told the candidates, “The Holy Father asked me to give you both this message. (Pause) Unfortunately, he gave it to me in Latin, and I have no idea what he said.”
He cited similarities between campaign and church challenges: “You both have to deal with highly diverse personalities and opinions. In our Church, we have to deal with both Biden and Ryan.”
It was worthy, honorable, civil and funny. Congratulations to the speakers and all involved.
And now, please be seated for my homily: MSNBC had a commentator, comedian/activist W. Kamau Bell, the host of “Totally Biased,” and a man who lives up to his show’s name. He went on for a few minutes on the point that while both men had good lines, Romney was very stern, and awkward, and uncomfortable. Romney has only two speeds,” he said, “Mean and Awkward.”
Obama, on the other hand, was “…smiling, upbeat, and delivered a good joke”.
I remember thinking how much I disagreed with him. I wonder how many of the great old comics these young critics have seen? Did he ever watch Jackie Vernon (the “Dull Guy”) deliver a lengthy and rambling joke? Jack Benny, staring at an audience until they either laughed or had to leave the theater? Myron Cohen telling a five minute story and squeezing a dozen or more laugh lines out of it along the way.
I wasn’t impressed with his commentary. There’s a lot more to stand-up than observational, situational, and blue material.
Finally, I’d also like to cite Stephen Colbert for his wicked take on the last debate. Governor Romney, perched comfortably on his stool, while President Obama tended to wander around a little bit. Colbert observed: “They only way you get that comfortable sitting on a stool is after years and years practicing on a bar stool. In fact, sitting comfortably on a stool is often an early sign of alcoholism. That’s why, when you go into a bar, and see someone fall off their stool and onto the floor, that person should be your Designated Driver.”