NEW YORK (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - White House rivals Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump attended the same charity dinner on Thursday (Oct 20) night, one of the more light-hearted events on the presidential campaign calendar.
The annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in Manhattan's swank Waldorf-Astoria hotel traditionally affords Democrats and Republicans much needed levity, after a contentious presidential campaign.
The white-tie dinner - likely the last joint appearance by Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump before the Nov 8 election -is historically seen as a first step on the long road bringing the parties together after months of campaign rancor.
In his speech, Mr Trump said he was in a room full of wonderful people. “Or as Hillary calls it, her largest crowd of her season,” he said with a chuckle, as Mrs Clinton laughed too. “This is corny stuff.”
But as his remarks progressed, Mr Trump’s speech turned more biting. “Here she is in public pretending not to hate Catholics,” he said. Several in the crowd booed.
He went on: “Everyone knows of course Hillary’s belief that it takes a village, as in Haiti where she’s taken a number of them.”
That was met with more jeering from the crowd. Mrs Clinton’s smile was still on her face, but she didn’t laugh.
Just 24 hours after engaging in fierce verbal combat in their final debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday night and refusing to shake hands, Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump were nearly elbow to elbow again, seated at the same table at the ballroom in the Waldorf Astoria, at a charity dinner famous for its humorous speeches.
If Wednesday’s debate raised the question whether the two New Yorkers vying for the nation’s highest office could deliver a knock out blow or take a punch, Thursday’s encounter tested each’s ability to deliver a punchline and take a joke.
Mrs Clinton, who spoke second, began with the self-deprecatory remarks and gracious gestures that have been the hallmarks of previous dinners. She got big laughs when she told the audience: “I just want to put you all in a basket of adorables.”
She told Mr Trump that if he didn’t like what she was saying, “feel free to stand up and shout ‘wrong!’ while I’m talking”. That was a reference to his habit of interrupting her comments at the debate to disagree.
Mrs Clinton also shifted to more biting tone as her speech progressed, and added after Mr Trump’s speech that she’ll “enjoy listening to Mike Pence deny that you ever gave it”. Mr Trump, with his arms folded, laughed.
But he didn’t always seem amused.
“Looking back, I’ve had to listen to Donald for three full debates. And he says I don’t have any stamina. That is 4½ hours. I have now stood next to Donald Trump longer than any of his campaign managers,” Mrs Clinton said as a stone-faced Trump looked on. “Now, look, I have deep respect for people like Kellyanne Conway. She’s working day and night for Donald, and because she’s a contractor, he’s probably not even going to pay her.”
During Wednesday’s debate, Mr Trump had described Mrs Clinton as “such a nasty woman". She called him “the most dangerous presidential candidate” in modern history.
A day later, tradition at the 71-year-old dinner called for the two to light-heartedly rib each other. Their place settings were separated only by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, New York’s archbishop.
Before either candidate spoke on Thursday, they were admonished to be civil toward one another by Mr Al Smith IV, the great-grandson of the state’s 42nd governor. He won laughs when he spun an imaginary scene in which Mr Trump greeted Mrs Clinton and asked how she was doing, and she would have said “Fine, now get out of the ladies’ dressing room”.
Mr Smith then got more laughs at Mr Trump’s expense. “Even though there’s a man sitting next to you in a robe, you're not in a locker room, please watch your language,” he said, referring to his seat next to the Cardinal.
The dinner’s namesake, Smith, was New York’s 42nd governor and the nation’s first Catholic presidential candidate. He was known as “the Happy Warrior” for the good humour with which he railed against political adversaries.
As has been the custom, the audience of 1,500 was dressed in white-tie formal attire. They paid US$3,000 to US$15,000 (S$4,176 - S$20,882) per person, raising about US$6 million for Catholic charities that will give services to impoverished New York children, according to Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for New York’s archdiocese.
The room was filled with Wall Street titans. Among them, seated on the dais, were Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, Nasdaq CEO Robert Greifeld, hedge fund manager Roberto Mignone and Mary Erdoes, CEO for Asset Management at JPMorgan Chase & Co.
“Hi Chuck,” Mr Trump said to New York Senator Chuck Schumer. “He used to love me when I was a Democrat.”
They dined on a “seafood trio” of king crab salad, lobster cocktail and lobster roll, followed by beef, “cheesy polenta” and red cabbage and desserts that included red velvet cupcakes and dark chocolate praline.
Thursday night’s dinner program offered biographies of the two candidates – and each carried a difference in tone that mirrored the two campaigns.
Mrs Clinton’s matter-of-fact rehashing of her life story presented her as the daughter of a small businessman who went to Wellesley College, Yale Law School where she met Mr Bill Clinton, and her career as first a children’s advocate, then as first lady if Arkansas, then as wife of the president, followed by her stints as US Senator and Secretary of State.
Mr Trump’s described himself in superlatives as “the very definition of the American success story,” a “pre-eminent developer of quality real estate” whose “business acumen is unparalleled”.
Anxiety about the risk that the confrontation might break with its gentle traditions arose last week when foundation board member Maureen Sherry, a former Bear Stearns Cos. managing director, said “we’re all craving some level of decency”. The candidate who wins, she said, “will be the one who can take the higher road”.
Mr Trump told the audience that during the debate “I called Hillary a nasty woman, and after listening to her go on and on and on, I don’t dislike Rosie O’Donnell so much any more”. And “some people think this would be tough for me but the truth is I’m actually a very modest person, very modest. It’s true. In fact many people tell me that perhaps modesty is my best quality”.
Mrs Clinton gave a stream of one-liners. “We'll either have the first female president or the first president who started a Twitter war with Cher,” she said.
“It's great, also, to see Mayor Bloomberg here,” Mrs Clinton said, and smiled at former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the guests on the dais. “It’s a shame he’s not speaking tonight.
“I’m curious to hear what a billionaire has to say,” she added.
None of Mrs Clinton’s remarks elicited booing. Afterward, she reached out and shook hands with Mr Trump, an occurrence that did not go unnoticed by those in attendance.
“I did see the candidates reach across a great divide and shake hands,” Mr Smith IV remarked.