Candidates Trade Jabs for Jokes at Al Smith Dinner
By Dan Balz
NEW YORK -- The head table looked resplendent in white tie and tails, the audience dignified in black tie and gowns, and the candidates looked, well, like they were actually enjoying each other's company.
That was the scene Thursday night at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, one night after Barack Obama and John McCain squared off in debate on a stage at Hofstra University. They had come to participated in one of the most entertaining rituals of presidential politics, the Alfred E. Smith Foundation Memorial Dinner, and they did not disappoint.
Named for the four-term governor of New York and one-time Democratic presidential nominee, the dinner is a big-time fundraiser for Catholic Charities and, every four years, an opportunity for the major-party presidential nominees to take a few hours off from the combat and sniping of the campaign trail and poke fun at themselves and each other.
In a pair of 15-minute speeches, we learned that McCain has dumped his entire team of advisers (the power of Bill Kristol?) and replaced them all with "a man named Joe the Plumber." Joe may have had a bad day in the media on Thursday, but McCain said Joe is destined to become a very wealthy man, having signed "a very lucrative contract with a wealthy couple to handle all the work on all seven of their houses."
Everyone in the house got it.
We also learned that Obama's first name is Swahili for "That One" (more from McCain on that in a moment). And that he got his middle name "from somebody who obviously didn't think I'd ever run for president." Actually, he said, his middle name is Steve, not Hussein. Because self-deprecating humor is the order of the dinner, Obama assured the audience that he was not, as some might have believed, born in a manger. "I was actually born," he said, "on Krypton and sent here by my father Jor-El to save the Planet Earth."
Obama and McCain sat on opposite sides of Cardinal Edward Egan, the archbishop of the New York Archdiocese, who got in a few licks of his own after they had finished, and, as one spoke, the other roared in laughter along with the audience.
McCain went first. He said Joe the Plumber was a necessary injection into a campaign that lacked the presence of the common man. "After all, it began so long ago with the heralded arrival of a man known to Oprah Winfrey as 'The One,'" he said. "Being a friend and colleague of Barack, I just called him 'That One.' And he -- my friends, he doesn't mind at all. In fact, he even has a pet name for me: George Bush."
McCain said he relished his underdog status but sensed he was among friends. Even in a ballroom in Democratic Manhattan, he said, he felt there were some in the audience pulling for him to win. Then turning to the far end of the head table, he deadpanned, "I'm delighted to see you here tonight, Hillary."
He joked that Bill Clinton had been "hammering away at me with epitaphs like American hero and great man," and that the former president's warm embrace of the Republican nominee recently was nothing less than "a brazen attempt to suppress turnout among anti-Clinton conservatives."
He joked too about how some in the press seem infatuated with Obama -- "It's going to be a long, long night at MSNBC if I manage to pull this thing off" -- and alluded to the fact that the souring economy had provided a political boost to his rival. "Senator Obama is ready for any contingency -- even the possibility of a sudden and dramatic market rebound," he said. "I'm told that at the first sign of recovery, he will suspend his campaign and fly immediately to Washington to address this crisis."
Obama opened by noting that he shares "the politics of Alfred E. Smith and the ears of Alfred E. Neumann." He said he obviously never knew Al Smith, "but from everything that Senator McCain has told me, the two of them had a great time together before Prohibition."
Looking around the huge ballroom, he said that he was disappointed with the venue. "I was originally told we'd be able to move this outdoors to Yankee Stadium, and -- can somebody tell me what happened to the Greek columns that I requested?" But he said he nonetheless loved the venerable Waldorf-Astoria. "I hear," he said in a line aimed Sarah Palin, "that from the doorstep you can see all the way to the Russian Tea Room."
The economy figured, naturally, into his remarks. "Recently, one of John's top advisers told the Daily News that if we keep talking about the economy, McCain's going to lose," Obama continued. "So, tonight I'd like to talk about the economy. Given all that's happened these past few weeks on Wall Street, it feels like an odd time to be dressed up in white tie, but I must say I got a great deal -- rented the whole outfit from the Treasury Department at a very good price."
One Obama line fell flat in the room of wealthy New Yorkers. "Looking around tonight at all the gourmet food and champagne, it's clear that no expenses were spared," he said. "It's like an executive sales meeting at AIG." That drew groans from some in the audience, although not from a table of labor leaders in the balcony.
He provided an introspective look at his own character and personality. His greatest strength, he told the audience, was "my humility," and his greatest weakness "that I'm a little too awesome." He was so hurt by McCain's accusations that he was nothing but a vapid celebrity that "I punched the paparazzi in the face on my way out of Spago's."
"One other thing," he added. "I have never, not once, put lipstick on a pig or a pit bull or myself. Rudy Giuliani, that's one for you. I mean, who would have thought that a cross-dressing mayor from New York City would have a tough time running for the Republican nomination? It's shocking." He looked over at his rival and added, "That was a tough primary you had there, John."
McCain's speech included gracious and generous words for his opponent. "Political opponents can have a little trouble seeing the best in each other," he said. "But I've had a few glimpses of this man at his best and I admire his great skill, energy and determination. It's not for nothing that he's inspired so many folks in his own party and beyond."
No matter the outcome of the election, he said Obama already has made plenty of history in this campaign. "There was a time when the mere invitation of an African-American citizen to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage and an insult in many quarters," he said. "Today, it's a world away from the crude and prideful bigotry of that time. And good riddance. I can't wish my opponent luck, but I do wish him well."
Obama responded with praise of his own. "We are in the midst of a tough battle right now, and American politics at the presidential level is always tough," he said. "But I've said before, and I think it bears repeating, that there are very few of us who have served this country with the same dedication and honor and distinction as Senator McCain."
He then closed with a reminder to the fortunate in the room that plenty of their fellow citizens are suffering right now and that all have an obligation to help.
"Before Al Smith was a candidate who made history," he said, "he was a man who made a difference, a man who fought for many years to give Americans nothing more than a fair shake and a chance to succeed. And he touched the lives of hundreds of thousands -- of millions as a result. Simply put, he helped people. That's a distinction we can all aspire to, that we can all achieve, young or old, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican or independent. And I have no doubt that if we come together at this moment of crisis with this goal in mind, America will meet this challenge and weather this storm, and, in the words of Al Smith, 'walk once more in eternal sunshine.'"
With that, the speeches were over and the campaign resumed in earnest.
Web Politics Editor
October 17, 2008; 11:28 AM ET
Categories: Barack Obama , Dan Balz's Take , John McCain
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