NEW YORK — The 2016 presidential campaign has come with its fair share of punchlines, but for the first time Thursday the candidates asked for the laughs.
They didn’t always get them, when even an event with a tradition of levity and lightheartedness, the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner, turned awkward. Boos came from the audience of 1,500.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were expected to switch gears — from the knock-down punches traded at their third and final debate Wednesday to the political equivalent of a stand-up routine less than 24 hours later.
Both were keynote speakers at the Waldorf Astoria for the dinner, a Catholic white-tie charity gala where it is tradition that presidential candidates speak in a comedic tone.
The dinners over the years have had a comedy “roast” aspect to them, with candidates traditionally packing their speeches with self-deprecation and one-liners, a change from the bitter, personal rhetoric of the campaign.
Perhaps the loudest boos came when Trump, who spoke first, said WikiLeaks had shown Clinton had two different personas in public and private.
“Here she is tonight, in public, pretending not to hate Catholics,” he said.
Trump had started off with a better reception, but lost some in the crowd with the joke, “Hillary is so corrupt she was kicked off the Watergate commission.”
Clinton offered barbs questioning if Trump was a billionaire and said he had a set an example for youth, telling a fake anecdote about a third-grader who refused to hand in his homework because it was under audit.
She mocked the flattering language from Trump’s physician praising the Republican nominee’s health.
“But Donald really is healthy as a horse … you know, the one Vladimir Putin rides around with,” she said.
Before their speeches, the candidates ate dinner at the dais separated only by New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
Alfred E. Smith IV, the great-grandson of the foundation’s namesake, was the master of ceremonies and opened the evening with a few jabs of his own about the candidates.
His great-grandfather, a four-term New York governor and the first Catholic presidential candidate in 1928, opposed Prohibition. He thanked God for that, saying alcohol was needed for many to get through the election.
“Tonight we are all friends,” Smith the great-grandson said in a moment of seriousness, before calling the current election one for the history books and also the psychology books.
There was some question if the two candidates would be able to share cheer after a campaign that has included Trump saying he’d jail Clinton and Clinton calling some of Trump’s supporters a basket of deplorables.
Since 1960, at least one of the major party nominees has appeared at nearly every election-year dinner, which is traditionally the last time the nominees share a stage before voters go to the polls.
Four years ago, President Obama and Mitt Romney set aside their differences to trade (mostly) warm jokes. Romney, scanning the well-heeled crowd in the gilded Waldorf-Astoria ballroom, joked that the event’s white-tie attire finally gave him a chance to publicly don what “Ann and I wear around the house.” Obama, meanwhile, used his speech that year to look ahead to an upcoming debate on foreign policy, previewing his argument by saying, “Spoiler alert: We got bin Laden.”
The evening might have felt familiar to Trump, who infamously glowered through Obama’s jokes at his expense during the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner and is not known for being self-deprecating. Last weekend, he tweeted that he did not appreciate Saturday Night Live’s portrayal of him in a sendup of the candidates’ performances in the second presidential debate.
Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow Mark Lungariello on Twitter: @marklungariello
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