Along with the search for equivalence: As you may know, we never discuss our experience writing award-winning jokes for the Al Smith Dinner.
We could do it. But it would be wrong!
Last night, we saw the field general under whom we marched discussing the quadrennial event on one of these "cable news" programs. We have a lot of respect for that guy, but we never discuss his work.
That said, last night's running of this derby was fascinating in several ways. Let's start with one peculiar manifestation—the two speeches of Candidate Trump.
Clearly, the best joke of the evening was Trump's joke about his wife. It was a very good joke, very well delivered.
Justifiably, it brought down the house. We think it went something like this:
TRUMP (10/20/16): You know, the president told me to stop whining. But I really have to say the media is even more biased this year than ever before. Ever.That's as good as jokes get at this dinner, even more so as delivered. It got a huge laugh, which was well deserved. It also signaled the approximate end of Candidate Trump's first speech.
You want the proof? Michelle Obama gives a speech and everyone loves it. It's fantastic. They think she's absolutely great.
My wife Melania gives the exact! same! speech! and people get on her case! And I don't get it. I don't know why.
Trump's first speech last night played by the rules. It took up roughly half his time. It was a series of jokes.
His Melania joke was the best of the night. Within moments, though, Trump was delivering this groan-inducing chunk from his second speech:
TRUMP: Hillary is so corrupt, she got kicked off the Watergate commission. How corrupt do you have to be to get kicked off the Watergate commission?Wow! Did somebody actually think that those comments would play as jokes? Or were they intended as insults?
Hillary is and has been in politics since the '70s. What's her pitch? The economy is busted. The government's corrupt. Washington is failing. "Vote for me. I've been working on these problems for 30 years. I can fix it," she says.
We've learned so much from WikiLeaks. For example, Hillary believes that it's vital to deceive the people by having one public policy and a totally different policy in private.
That's OK. I don't know who they're angry at, Hillary, you or I.
For example, here she is tonight in public, pretending not to hate Catholics.
Within the context of the Smith Dinner, the "joke" about "pretending not to hate Catholics" was just especially rank. But the groaning started as soon as Trump said, "Hillary is so corrupt..."
Were these remarks intended to play as insults? In fairness, we don't think it's entirely clear. Even a professional comedian may not realize how a "joke" will play until he tries it in public.
That said, it almost seemed that Trump had been given two speeches. Did Conway write the first of the two, with Bannon constructing the second?
The jeering of Trump began as soon as he said, "Hillary is so corrupt." The tone in the room changed instantly. This produced an intriguing challenge for the nation's journalists.
Early this morning, Jim Acosta reported this event for CNN. Acosta bowed low to a great press corps god, the jealous god known as Equivalence:
ACOSTA (10/21/16): Christine and George, it was another reminder of just how vicious this campaign season has become at the Al Smith Dinner here in New York, an occasion where candidates normally delivery light-hearted remarks and some self-deprecating jokes.Acosta bowed to Equivalence, one the corps' greatest gods. That said, was Acosta's implied journalistic judgment right? Did the two candidates behave in roughly equivalent ways?
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, instead, went after each other, drawing groans and boos from the audience. Here's what happened:
TRUMP (videotape): Hillary is so corrupt she got kicked off the Watergate Commission. How corrupt do you have to be to get kicked off the Watergate Commission?
CLINTON (videotape): But Donald really is as healthy as a horse. You know, the one Vladimir Putin rides around on?
ACOSTA: But there was one remarkable moment at the end of the speeches when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton actually shook hands, something they could not bring themselves to do at their last debate. Christine and George?
HOWELL: Jim Acosta, thank you. So, despite the awkwardness of some of those jokes and what many call the lack of civility through biting attacks, the candidates did have a few moments at that Al Smith dinner.
Someone else at CNN didn't seem to think so. Here was co-anchor Christine Romans, just before throwing to Acosta:
ROMANS (10/21/16): Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton sharing the same stage at a dinner benefiting Catholic Charities. It's supposed to be a good-natured roast but like everything else in this presidential race, it got awkward quickly.Romans tilted toward Equivalence at the end, but only a bit of a tad. After that, Acosta appeared and worshiped the god full-bore.
[Co-anchors say good morning]
ROMANS: So, so much for tradition in this down and dirty presidential election. Donald Trump's appearance at last night's Al Smith charity dinner was so incendiary, he actually got booed.
The Al Smith Dnner's always been a good-natured tradition—a good-natured roast, a break from the ugliness of the campaign trail. It benefits Catholic Charities. White tie, all kinds of famous New Yorkers. Apparently, Trump didn't get the memo.
TRUMP (video): Here she is tonight, in public, pretending not to hate Catholics.
ROMANS: Hillary Clinton—well, she didn't hold back either and she heard a few jeers too. Eighteen days before the election it appears the race is still here stuck in the mud.
We get more from CNN's Jim Acosta.
Needless to say, there is no formula which can tell a journalist how to report this event. To what extent did both candidates possibly go over the line? To what extent was it Candidate Trump alone?
No formula can answer that question. In this post, even New York Magazine basically played it safe. (For video of Trump's two speeches, click over to that post.)
Our view? In his report, Acosta presented a pair of jokes as if the two jokes were equivalent. In our view, one of the jokes was an actual joke, the other joke was an insult.
Charley Lanyon performed in a similar way at New York Magazine. In this paragraph, we'd have to say he seemed to bow to Equivalence too:
LANYON (10/20/16): When it was Clinton’s turn to take the dais, it quickly became clear that she wouldn’t be pulling any punches either. She did take a moment to praise Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway before acknowledging that because Conway is a contractor, Trump probably won’t pay her.In our view, that was one of Clinton's best jokes. There's no rule which says you can't make a joke about the other guy.
There was nothing wrong with that joke. Meanwhile, the headline atop Lanyon's piece says this:
"A Night of Laughter, Charity, and Boos: The Candidates Struggle to Remain Civil at the Al Smith Charity Dinner"
Those darn candidates! Those darn candidates, plural!
Equivalence is a powerful god. That said, there are no rules which let us know when his familiar, roaring insistence has been misapplied.