Getting booed at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, the annual charity event of the New York Archdiocese, lands somewhere between rare and unheard of.
Donald Trump managed to do it.
The white-tie audience voiced disapproval of the kind visited on unsportsmanlike conduct. It had become clear at some point in his remarks that he was bluntly attacking Hillary Clinton with little humor about the situation or himself.
Clinton, whom nobody mistakes for Carol Burnett, got well-deserved static too for some zingers at Trump. But as can be said for other moments in the campaign, she didn’t alienate as strongly.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the host, explained in a TV interview Friday: “The characteristic of the evening is self-deprecating, humble humor. And that seems to be a tougher and tougher goal to achieve.”
Even for the awkward likes of Trump and Clinton, the formula for speakers at the dinner is easy: Get someone clever to write you some self-deprecating lines, take lighthearted jabs at the rival.
Then smile, wave and sit down.
One month after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney joined in the spirit of the event before appropriately delving into more serious remarks.
“I am honored to join you this evening. It’s nice, for a change, to be at a disclosed location.”
Cheney denied a “rumor” he’d been sent on an air raid to Afghanistan. “I think I know how the rumor got started,” he said. “At the White House, Karl Rove was overheard to say, ‘We’re sending Cheney to the Al Smith dinner and he’s going to bomb.’ ”
Jimmy Carter was booed at the dinner in 1980 and challenger Ronald Reagan cheered. But that, according to published reports, stemmed from something different: Carter’s waffling on abortion.
The lighter side seems better remembered among those who regularly attend.
President-to-be George W. Bush famously quipped from the same rostrum 20 years later: “This is an impressive crowd. The haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.”
Contrast that with Trump on Thursday: “Hillary is so corrupt she got kicked off the Watergate commission. How corrupt do you have to be to get kicked off the Watergate commission?”
Other lines sounded as if they came from the last debate.
Up to that point, Trump had been going along pretty well. He got applause after saying: “You know, the president told me to stop whining, but I really have to say, the media is even more biased this year than ever before. You want the proof? Michelle Obama gives a speech and everyone loves it — it’s fantastic. They think she’s absolutely great. My wife, Melania, gives the exact same speech and people get on her case.”
And this didn’t serve him too badly: “I have no doubt that Hillary is going to laugh quite a bit tonight — sometimes even at an appropriate moment.”
Clinton got points for self-deprecation with this: “I took a break from my rigorous nap schedule to be here. And as all of you heard, it’s a treat for all of you, because usually I charge a lot for speeches like this.”
And she told Trump: “After listening to your speech, I will also enjoy listening to Mike Pence deny that you ever gave it.”
Not so sharp, and more self-serving: “Every year, this dinner brings together a collection of sensible, committed mainstream Republicans.
“Or, as we now like to call them, Hillary supporters.”
Comedian Steve Martin once said, in a falsely grave intonation: “Comedy isn’t pretty.”
In this case, he wasn’t kidding.