Trump Time Capsule #146: Al Smith Dinner

Joining a few friends for a casual dinner last night. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

“Light” events are some of the heaviest lifting in political life. Comedy is hard to begin with, and for the kinds of people involved in politics, jokes are vastly more difficult to write or deliver than “substantive” remarks. And for presidents or presidential aspirants, we’re talking about a special kind of joke. These eminent figures need to come across as “modest” and self-deprecatory, but only up to a humble-brag point. (That is, just enough so the audience and reviewers will say, “Oh, isn’t it charming that he’s willing to laugh at himself!”) Real comedy often includes a “what the hell!” willingness to say something that will genuinely shock or offend, which national politicians can’t afford to do. The White House Correspondents Dinner, the Gridiron, the Al Smith Dinner—any event like this is hard (as David Litt, a former member of the Obama speechwriting team, explains in a very nice item just now).

But you’ve got to do it. And to seem to “enjoy” it. And to maintain the closest simulacrum you can to a “genuine” smile or laugh, when others are making fun of you.

Last night at the Al Smith Dinner, which is the subject of Litt’s essay, Donald Trump could perform only a tiny handful of the basic moves. In the process he spectacularly reinforced a crucial point about himself, even as Hillary Clinton was demonstrating an under-appreciated implication of one of her familiar traits. Let’s go to the tape and see what he didn’t do, and what she did.

***

The clip below is cued to begin as Trump takes the stage, nearly an hour and a half into the whole elephantine pageant. (Reflect for a moment: you’re sitting there for the first 90 minutes, eating while in formal wear and on camera and purporting to socialize, realizing that a high-stakes performance is ahead at the end of the night.)

For the first eight or ten minutes, things are going more or less OK for Trump. As you can see:

  • Around time 1:25:45, he begins a semi-obvious but good-spirited riff on self-deprecation itself. (Modesty is my greatest quality, etc.)
  • Around 1:26:30, he gives a kind of charming routine about his “perfectly formed hands.” Bonus here: Through the GOP primaries, he seemed to have absolutely zero sense of humor about his petite digits. This is progress!
  • Around 1:30:45, a mean-edged—but nothing like what’s coming—bit about Hillary Clinton and Rosie O’Donnell.
  • Then, starting at 1:32:00, a genuinely funny joke about his wife Melania’s plagiarized speech. This was perfectly delivered and would count as a classic of public-event self-deprecation—except that he’s not making fun of himself. He’s making fun of her. (And then has her stand up in a way that sort of compounds the offense, although she takes it graciously.)
  • From 1:34:00 onwards he goes off the rails, and seems to imagine that he is at a true-believer rally where the crowd is shouting “Lock her up!” In fact, this crowd, at a religious-charity event, in what he thinks of as his town, starts to boo.
***

For convenience here is the same clip again, this time cued to begin when Hillary Clinton takes the stage around time 1:41:30. I’ve watched her presentation twice now and think it deserves a careful look. Some guideposts:

  • The first minute or so is standard “earnest” intro. But then:
  • At 1:43:00 an effortless, quick offhand remark about “my rigorous nap schedule.” This is straight from Self-Deprecatory Political Humor 101. You show awareness of a wisecrack about you, and you also show that you can just laugh about it. She follows it with a not-quite-as-artful (because it’s not quite as funny to her) crack that she usually “charges a lot” for this kind of speech.
  • Starting at 1:44:20, a nice little sequence of religio-political-gender humor, first with the “miracle” of her getting through the debates, and building to the “stained-glass ceiling” (without spelling out that she is of course talking about the patriarchal Catholic church).
  • Almost immediately after that, following an interlude for a mayor-versus-governor New York politico joke, at 1:45:15 onward she has another very artful minute-long stretch. In quick succession it touches these items: “baskets” of people; pantsuits; Trump’s interrupting her at the debates; and “peaceful transfer of power.” Anyone who has labored in these fields will recognize this passage as both skillfully written and impressively delivered.
  • At 1:47:00, the “Statue of Liberty is a four, maybe five tops” line.
  • Then at 1:47:45, “And I’ve been to three!” which again is Self-Deprecation 101.
  • At 1:49:35, a joke at her own expense (“This counts as a press conference, right?”) followed immediately by one at Trump’s expense (it’s too bad that Mike Bloomberg isn’t speaking, “because we’d all be curious what a [real] billionaire has to say.” Bada-bing!) And right after that the meanest but most deserved joke of the entire speech, about Rudy Giuliani. The cut-away to a glowering Giuliani shows that he has even worse poker-face control than Trump.
  • At 1:51:00, what starts as classic self-deprecation, about Trump’s call for a drug test before the debate, and builds to a surprisingly serious “joke.” I won’t spoil or belabor this, but it’s worth watching for yourself.
  • Skipping over some other riffs, including a nice one about the “Muslim ban,” we come to my favorite little morsel of deadpan delivery. It starts at 1:53:50. The punchline involves “a hearse.”
***

What trait of Trump’s did last evening reinforce? It’s one I emphasized in my October-issue piece: that he has one speed, he is exactly and only who he is, and while he can momentarily shift registers sooner or later he comes back to one persona. That person cannot really laugh at himself, or even feign to for very long. That person is angry.

And what do we see about Hillary Clinton? That a trait of hers that is always taken for granted, and frequently sneered-about, is actually of great consequence. Namely: that she works, that she tries, that she practices, that she prepares—and as a result of all these things, she improves.

We know about the “naturals” in politics—JFK in one way, Ronald Reagan in another, each of the past two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Obama, with their very different approaches. Hillary Clinton has often remarked (and no doubt rued) that she is not as “natural” or “gifted” in these public-presentation skills as Democratic presidents #44 and #42. No doubt there is enormous gendered baggage that comes along with these contrasts: the “naturally charming” FDR versus the “hard-working” Eleanor, on to the Bill/Hillary comparison now.

Conceivably Barack Obama makes his dryly effective comic appearances without “trying” as hard as Hillary Clinton has to. But she reminded us last night that what matters is the result. Presumably she tried very hard; demonstrably she did very well, while also demonstrating mastery of a skill she hadn’t displayed this clearly before (high-stakes deadpan comedy).

The most graceful performers—Federer, Jordan, Simone Biles, Fred Astaire, FDR—make the result of endless hard work seem effortless. Hillary Clinton can’t conceal the effort. But, as in the old line about Ginger Rogers, she has demonstrated command of ever more graceful moves.

***

Seventeen days and a few hours until the election. For the first time since Richard Nixon, no tax returns or plausible health information forthcoming from a major party nominee. It now appears that Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and the “responsible” leadership of their party will ride out this disaster to the end, all the while contending, as they still officially do, that Donald Trump is the best choice as our next president.