A day after they faced each other in their third and final debate of the 2016 election season, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be attending a white-tie charity gala at the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom in New York, where they are expected to make lighthearted jokes about each other.
Almost every election year, on the third Thursday of October, the Democratic and Republican nominees for US president are invited to speak at a dinner hosted by the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation in honor of Catholic charities.
The foundation and its event are named for a former New York governor who worked for child welfare laws and was sometimes called the “Happy Warrior” for his friendly political style. Smith was the country’s first Catholic presidential candidate; he made his White House bid in 1928. The first Al Smith dinner was the year after his death in 1945.
The event, usually the last time the presidential candidates meet before Election Day, is hosted by the Archbishop of New York, who is sometimes seated between the two candidates. This year, the crowd of about 1,500 New York elite who will attend will pay between $3,000 and $15,000, which will go toward charities for underprivileged children in New York.
The dinners have taken on the air of a roast, with candidates giving humorous speeches and poking fun at their opponents. In 1960, at the first dinner when both major-party nominees attended, John F. Kennedy politely took aim at Richard Nixon. “Mr. Nixon, like the rest of us, has had his troubles in this campaign,” he said. “At one point even the Wall Street Journal was criticizing his tactics. That is like the Observatore Romano criticizing the Pope.”
This is not the first time Clinton will be the subject of a joke at the roast. At the 2000 dinner, Al Gore, then serving as Bill Clinton’s vice president and making his own run for the presidency, said his campaign was about real people, “like the woman here tonight whose husband is about to lose his job. She’s struggling to get out of public housing and get a job of her own. Hillary Clinton, I want to fight for you.” At that same gathering, Gore’s Republican opponent, George Bush, famously said, “This is an impressive crowd, the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.”
And four years ago, when president Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney attended, Obama quipped, “Early today, I went shopping at some stores in midtown. I understand governor Romney went shopping for some stores in midtown.”
The dinner is such a ritual that it has its own episode of The West Wing dedicated to it. But there have been breaks in the tradition. In 1996, neither presidential candidate was invited. The official explanation was that the candidates were not able to confirm attendance, but it was widely reported that the Catholic leadership was dismayed by then-president Bill Clinton’s veto of a bill that would have outlawed late-term abortions. In 2004, the two candidates were not invited and there was speculation that it was Democratic nominee John Kerry’s pro-choice stance that was the issue.
Trump and Clinton, however, are both expected to attend tonight, though neither campaign has shared details about what the candidates will say. A statement from the foundation confirming the candidates’ attendance promised that the two would “deliver the evening’s keynote speeches in the spirit of collegiality and good-humor that has become a hallmark of the gala.”
In an election season filled with unusually harsh and spiteful rhetoric, some good-natured humor might be just the antidote the American people need.