On Thursday night, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump dispatched with one of the stupidest traditions of America’s generally moronic campaign season: the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner roast. This event typically requires both candidates to roast each other with feeble, poorly formulated jokes and pay tribute to New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, a truly horrible man who quietly paid off sexually abusive priests to leave the priesthood and once hid $57 million to shield the money from civil suits by the victims of priest abuse.
Both Trump and Clinton dutifully paid tribute to the hideously corrupt Dolan—but neither followed the usual lame joke playbook. Trump flat-out bombed with a series of nasty, humorless barbs at Clinton, drawing boos from the crowd. Clinton, on the other hand, did something rather different, quite unexpected, and completely effective: She delivered a legitimately hilarious series of sharp, trenchant jokes—many of them directed at the wealthy, fairly conservative audience—then closed out with a startlingly poignant and beautiful reflection on faith, civility, and humility.
Start with Clinton’s jokes, which really were quite great but often confused the frequently flummoxed audience. There were strong shades of Stephen Colbert’s famous 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner address, in which the comic largely went over his audience’s heads, playing not to the room but to viewers at home by skewering the room. Clinton referenced Smith, the “fiery populist,” quipping: “If he saw this magnificent room full of plutocrats celebrating his legacy, he’d be very confused.” Of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Clinton deadpanned: “It’s a shame he’s not speaking tonight. I’m curious to hear what a billionaire has to say.” Of the event itself: “This is such a special event that I took a break from my rigorous nap schedule to be here.”
There were also the standard self-deprecating jokes—but these were delivered with a winking irony, as though Clinton were not really mocking herself, but rather the audience’s silly expectations of who she should be. “People say I’m boring compared to Donald,” she said, “but I’m not boring at all. In fact, I’m the life of every party I attend … and I’ve been to three.” Calling her remarks “a treat for all of you too,” she joked: “Usually I charge a lot for speeches like this.” About her critics: “They think I only say what people want to hear. Well, tonight, that is true. And here’s exactly what you want to hear—this election will be over very, very soon.”
These lines were pretty good, but they were instantly upstaged by her most acerbic, mordantly funny observations about the election and her opponent. “You know, come to think of it,” Clinton said early on with a grin, “it’s amazing I’m up here after Donald. I didn’t think he’d be OK with a peaceful transition of power.” About the Statue of Liberty: “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 looks at the Statue of Liberty and sees a 4. Maybe a 5 if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair.” Here’s Clinton on the debates:
There is nothing like sharing a stage with Donald Trump. Donald wanted me drug tested before last night’s debate. And look, I’ve got to tell you, I am so flattered that Donald thought I used some sort of performance enhancer. Now, actually, I did. It’s called preparation. And looking back, I’ve had to listen to Donald for three full debates. And he says I don’t have any stamina. That is four and a half hours. I have now stood next to Donald Trump longer than any of his campaign managers.
On the outcome of Election Day:
Whoever wins this election, the outcome will be historic. We’ll either have the first female president or the first president who started a Twitter war with Cher. And 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?
And on Rudy Giuliani:
Now, many don’t know this, but Rudy actually got his start as a prosecutor going after wealthy New Yorkers who avoided paying taxes. But, as the saying goes, “If you can’t beat them, go on Fox News and call them a genius.”
(Giuliani was emphatically unamused.)
Clinton is often criticized as robotic or humorless in public. She does have a reputation for being witty in private, but we don’t often see that side of her. That’s why her appearance on Zach Galifianakis’ Between Two Ferns felt like such a revelation: Deadpanning one-on-one, Clinton simply slayed, calmly delivering wickedly funny barbs with a straight face. We saw that Clinton again on Thursday. Unlike President Obama, who is widely considered funny but who often appears a little too satisfied with his own comedic skills, Clinton’s humor is low-key and dryly savage. Obama’s jokes are on-the-nose and ostentatiously clever. Clinton’s are off-kilter, sardonic, and more than a little strange. She is an unexpectedly perfect fit for our current comedy culture.
But the highlight of Clinton’s address wasn’t actually her jokes. It was her impassioned peroration, which effortlessly tied Smith’s legacy to the very modern troubles that have dominated this campaign season. Clinton used this portion of her address to deliver as clear a thesis statement about her personal and political philosophy as we can ever expect to get. “In the end,” she said, “what makes this dinner important are not the jokes we tell but the legacy that we carry forward. It is often easy to forget how far this country has come.”
And there are a lot of people in this room tonight who themselves, or their parents or grandparents, came here as immigrants, made a life for yourselves, took advantage of the American dream and the greatest system that has ever been created in the history of the world to unleash the individual talents and energy and ambition of everyone willing to work hard.
And when I think about what Al Smith went through it’s important to just reflect how groundbreaking it was for him, a Catholic, to be my party’s nominee for president. Don’t forget—school boards sent home letters with children saying that if Al Smith is elected president, you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible. Voters were told that he would annul Protestant marriages. And … people even claimed the Holland Tunnel 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 a lot harder to love our neighbor as ourselves.
I believe how we treat others is the highest expression of faith and of service. I’m not Catholic. I’m a Methodist, but one of the things that we share is the belief that in order to achieve salvation we need both faith and good works. And you certainly don’t need to be Catholic to be inspired by the humility and heart of the Holy Father, 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.
By then, Clinton looked serious, engaged—stepping out of the role of court jester and into the position of a bona fide moral leader.
Now as you may know, my running mate, Tim, is Catholic and went to Jesuit schools, and one of the things he and I have talked about is this idea from the Jesuits of the Magis, the more, the better. But we need to get better at finding ways to disagree on matters of policy while agreeing on questions of decency and civility. How we talk to each other, treat each other, respect each other.
So I’ve taken this concept of Magis to heart in this campaign, as best as one can in the daily heat, the back and forth of a presidential campaign, to ask how we can do more for each other, and better for each other. Because I believe that for each of us, our greatest monument on this earth won’t be what we build, but the lives we touch.
At this point, the audience seemed to understand what Clinton was doing, providing her with a nearly rapturous applause. It was extraordinarily moving to see a room full of mostly old, white, conservative men cheer a liberal woman’s implicit rejection of Trump’s cold-hearted message of exclusion and instead endorse inclusion, empathy—and, yes, love and kindness. Despite her initially tepid reception, Clinton must have been pleased as she walked off the dais. After decades of camouflage and reinvention, a person who seems a lot like the true Hillary Clinton emerged this week with striking clarity. And that, with any luck, is the person whom we will soon elect to be president of the United States.