This is going to be short, and I’m doing a lot of quoting. The new president’s a better writer than I am, and I don’t want to compete. (You see how I can turn one of the most historic events of our time into an issue about me? It’s a kind of a gift.)
I’m thinking about this event they hold every year late in the campaign (this year, it was October the 16th) called the “Al Smith Dinner.” At the dinner, the presidential candidates set aside rhetoric, attacks, and policy statements, and get up and tell jokes.
John McCain, who went first, seemed extremely loose, more at ease than the clenched guy I saw in the debates. It could have been alcohol. It could have been relief that the endless campaign was coming to an end. It could have been, “I’m the underdog; I’ve got nothing to lose.” Any of these, all three, or something in the middle. Who knows?
McCain was also in the Lion’s Den. Al Smith was a Democrat (and the losing candidate for president in 1928). The dinner audience generally leans in that direction.
For whatever reason, McCain, the old fighter pilot, was remarkably on target. His jokes were sharp, funny and consistent - all cut the testosterone-laced fabric of the snapping towel. McCain's tone was edgy and aggressive - the Officers’ Club after a bombing run.
McCain feigned amazement at Bill Clinton’s conspicuous absence from the event:
Can’t he take one night off from his tireless quest to make the man who defeated his wife the next president?
He kept landing punches. Continuing his assault on Bill Clinton’s restrained enthusiasm for Obama as the next president, McCain remarked:
When a reporter asked him if Senator Obama was qualified to be president, Bill Clinton pointed out, sure, he’s over 35 yeas of age and a U.S. citizen. He was pandering to the strict constructionist crowd.
After scoring consistently, McCain went out in a starburst of hilarity. Pretending to have taken a peek at Obama’s upcoming comedy routine, McCain announced:
Now, of course, it would be unfair – and even a little unkind – to put my opponent on the spot before he gets up here, or to throw him off his game with unreasonably high expectations. But I do need to warn you, ladies and gentlemen, you all are about to witness the funniest performance in history.
Let’s not add to the mounting pressure he must be feeling. Just prepare yourself for non-stop hilarity…
The funniest 15 minutes of your life or any other. I think he knows that anything short of that would mar the evening, insult our hosts, and perhaps even cost him a few swing states. Senator Obama, the microphone is all yours.
I liked John McCain. I am sorry he was handcuffed by the requirements of running as a Republican.
Obama’s material was all over the place. “Frontrunner” comedy is harder to pull off. The jokes are meant to say, “I know I’m not as great as they say I am.” But when they’re not sufficiently nuanced, they can come out sounding like they actually believe they are.
Some examples from Obama’s monologue:
Contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger.
If I had to name my greatest strength, I guess it would be my humility. Greatest weakness, it’s possible I’m a little too awesome.
Not my favorite style of comedy. The guy was doing “Prom King” material. More suitable to the Adonises from 90210.
There was, however, one shining exception.
Buried in the not quite “coming off” self-deprecation was a joke I really loved. Obama was talking about his name:
I got my name, Barack, from my father…And I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn’t think I’d ever run for president.
His middle name is Hussein.
And that’s a really good joke.
I know that candidates rarely write their own jokes. But I liked how Obama delivered it. The joke was weightily true. And his mock-rueful expression carried it home.
No forced self-deprecation this time. This was real self-deprecation. The first black nominee for president was burdened with the middle name, “Hussein.”
“Like I don’t have enough trouble.”
I’m hoping that’s the real guy.
And I’m hoping he governs from that joke.
That’s all I got.
Here’s wishing the president, the country – and the world, while we’re at it – the very best for the coming years. I’m not that guy, but for those so inclined, you might consider a little prayer.