A Funny Thing May Happen on the Way to Thursday’s Trump-Clinton Roast

  • The rivals will dine at New York’s Al Smith Dinner on Thursday
  • Event organizers wonder whether they can set aside rancor

President Barack Obama, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney attend the 67th annual Al Smith dinner at the Waldorf Astoria hotel Oct. 18, 2012, in New York, New York.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will attempt the improbable, if not the impossible Thursday night: to act civilly and good-naturedly rib each other at New York’s annual Al Smith charity dinner.

The dinner, named after the state’s 42nd governor and the first Catholic U.S. presidential candidate, includes the Democratic and Republican White House nominees almost every four years. Smith became known as “The Happy Warrior” for his friendly style of political combat and for pushing some of the state’s early worker-protection and child-welfare laws.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Now the ecumenical goodwill that has characterized past dinners may be in doubt amid an election season marred by hostility, personal attacks and sex-scandal accusations. The event will occur just 24 hours after the campaign’s third and final debate. Trump has declared his intention to wage a “scorched Earth” strategy in the run-up to the Nov. 8 election, and Clinton, citing Trump’s remark, accused him of engaging in a “hateful, divisive campaign.” 

“We’re all craving some level of decency,” said foundation board member Maureen Sherry, a former Bear Stearns Cos. managing director and author of “Opening Belle,” about sexism on Wall Street. “Whoever will prevail on that evening will be the one who can take the higher road.”

Cardinal Dolan

As has been the custom over the dinner’s 71-year history, the audience inside the Waldorf Astoria ballroom will include about 1,500 in white-tie formal attire. They have paid $3,000 to $15,000 per person, raising about $5 million for Catholic charities providing services to impoverished New York children, said Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for New York’s archdiocese.

The state’s top elected officials will attend, as will Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan. Zwilling said he didn’t know whether Dolan would be placed between the two candidates, as has been the practice in some past years.

Sherry, an independent who said she isn’t voting for either major candidate, said Trump may use his appearance before the cardinal to remind the group of last week’s WikiLeaks disclosure, in which Jennifer Palmieri, the Clinton campaign’s communications director, said that for some the Catholic faith is “the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion.”

“If I was writing his speech that would be an obvious dig,” Sherry said. “But again, we’re hoping for the high road.”

Choice Seat

Ken Langone, the billionaire Republican donor and co-founder of Home Depot Inc., said he will be seated on the dais and has no expectation of what the candidates will say.

“I don’t care how they behave,” said Langone, who intends to vote for Trump. “It’s a roast, so if they go after each other, whether it’s in a humorous fashion or nasty way, I can’t, nobody can guess what the hell these two can do.”

If the encounter turns hostile, “everybody will be angry,” said John Catsimatidis, the billionaire chairman of the Red Apple Group, a conglomerate of supermarkets, real estate and energy companies. “I think both will be civilized in front of the cardinal,” said Catsimatidis, who will also be at the head table.

CSPAN, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have each broadcast the dinner, or excerpts of it. Spokesmen for each network news desk said schedules haven’t been finalized for Thursday night.

Respecting Differences

Self-deprecatory remarks and gracious gestures by candidates toward their opponents have been the hallmarks of previous dinners. 

“It’s an evening when we truly respect our differences, transcend them, and discover and embrace the highest common denominator of the human spirit,” former Vice President Al Gore told the dinner’s audience in 2000, when he appeared with his rival, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush.

Bush, moments later, filled the room with laughs from both Democrats and Republicans when he greeted them saying, “This is an impressive crowd -- the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite; I call you my base.” Turning to Gore, he said, “This year, Mr. Vice President, I can’t wish you success, but I do wish you well.”

Spokespersons for the Clinton and Trump campaigns didn’t share details about what message their candidates intend to impart Thursday night. That’s not unusual. Each year, the featured speaker withholds advance disclosure of remarks in an effort not to spoil the surprise of a joke.

“We’re really excited about the dinner but probably won’t have any machinations or preparations to share details about beforehand,” said Nick Merrill, a Clinton campaign spokesman.

Trump’s New York state co-chairman, Carl Paladino, a billionaire developer in Buffalo who is among his earliest supporters, said he would advise the candidate to use the dinner to demonstrate his role as leader of a “middle-class uprising,” and not back away from Trump’s previous vows to prosecute and jail Clinton for destroying e-mails she held on a private Internet server while she was U.S. secretary of state.

“I don’t think this is a time for fun and games,” said Paladino, 70, a Republican candidate for governor who lost to Andrew Cuomo in 2010. To politely joke about the campaign “would be a disservice to the American people,” he said.

“Here’s a guy who soaks up all the oxygen in the room and it would be a mistake to get away from the nitty gritty,” Paladino said. “Sure he will be funny; he’ll use some jokes, like telling the audience he thinks she should be in jail. When he used it in the debate he got a great response, people laughed. He may call her tough, but you’re never going to hear he likes her.”

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