What’s so Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding?

Secretary Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump shake hands at the 71st Al Smith Dinner

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Elvis Costello was not thinking of the Al Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner when he wrote those words, but they apply to the 71st edition of the event which occurred last week in New York. Stanton Communications was privileged to support the Foundation and the Archdiocese of New York with media arrangements and logistics. From our vantage point, the spirit of comity and collegiality was far stronger in the press room than at the podium.

Nearly one hundred journalists including pools from both campaigns as well as international media, New York local press and Catholic news organizations convened in the West Foyer of the Waldorf Astoria ballroom to cover the proceedings. Many were dead tired after racing cross country from debate coverage in Nevada the night before. Planes landed late in New York. Tight pools shuttling even the few blocks from Trump Tower or from Mrs. Clinton’s home in Westchester arrived weary, wary of the potential for logistical complications, and worn down from an arduous campaign season. Their West Foyer base of operations offered limited luxuries in terms of space, refreshment or comfort. Their vantage points from the ballroom balcony were ill suited to their numbers. To say they all became close friends during the evening is an understatement.

In 2012, when we handled similar responsibilities for the Dinner featuring President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, journalists were contentious and cranky. There was sharp elbowed jockeying for space and some tension about camera angles and access. This time, to use the phrase, journalists played nice with one another. Perhaps all were acutely aware of the toll of the campaign and the incessant travel. Perhaps they were too weary for “warfare.” Whatever the reason, they proved themselves professional and dignified even when the featured speakers stooped low for laughs.

The remarks at times were cutting, accusatory, and sufficiently harsh they elicited groans from the elegant audience. Boos were heard. Heckling occurred. The candidates seemed to feed off the acrimony and go further into the mire. Each took hard shots at the other. Both used their time at the microphone to weave into their attempts at humor pointed campaign stump speech language. Neither, as Cardinal Timothy Dolan observed the next day on The Today Show, held to the time honored Smith Dinner practice of self-deprecation.

In 2012, when Mitt Romney rose to the podium resplendent in white tie and tails, he observed that he was so pleased to be able to appear in the attire he and Ann Romney wear to relax around the house. After suffering numerous attacks during the campaign for his affluence and wealthy life style, the line brought down the house. For his part, President Obama, whose lack luster performance in the first debate that year was a cause of much critical press commentary, stated he was well rested for the evening due to the nice long nap he enjoyed during that first debate. Neither speaker sought to eviscerate the other.

Trump’s comments, by comparison, were characterized the next day as “turning a friendly roast into a three alarm fire.” Secretary Clinton’s remarks were described in the press as “biting.” As Cardinal Dolan, the host for the evening commented on Today, the art of turning the joke on oneself seems to have been lost since the days when John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan spoke at this historic occasion.

Meanwhile, in the press boxes, journalists gave way to others who needed a better view. They worked with C-SPAN which served as broadcast pool for the night to minimize shaking in the Waldorf’s aging Royal Box where live TV cameras were positioned. Even the media relations folks took up the spirit of cooperation, granting access to one or two press cameras originally denied entry due to space limitations.

Thank You

To the journalists who covered the 71st Al Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner from those of us who worked to put arrangements in place to facilitate your coverage….thank you.

Thank you for your peace…in the jam packed West Foyer and balcony boxes, when the food ran out, when you arrived late to find too few chairs and SRO only in the tiers.

Thank you for your love (perhaps a slight hyperbole)…for the dignity of the Smith Dinner itself, its history, traditions and genuine importance.

Thank you for your understanding…no hyperbole at all…of the needs of your colleagues and everyone striving to work in far less than optimal conditions. From the start, a goal of the media organizers was to accord access to the largest number of media reasonably possible. To an extent that impinged on your convenience and comfort, but never did it diminish your courtesy.

The excellence of the coverage that immediately afterwards went around the world is a reflection of the peace, love and understanding evident among the press. A little more of same from the podium might have elevated the candidates own stature and in the process, made them appear a bit more human…or at least funny.

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