The Al Smith Dinner— Romney and Obama trade quips

Pres. Barack Obama and his GOP challenger, Gov. Mitt Romney, gave dueling stand-up routines tonight at the annual Al Smith Dinner. The charity dinner is hosted by the Archdiocese of New York, and presidential nominees are traditionally invited in election years. Since the affair always takes place shortly before Election Day, the rivals are in high-gear campaign mode, but they are expected to obey an unspoken pact that they will sheathe their knives and tone down the political sparring. But how would Obama and Romney, a mere two nights after the most contentious debate in the history of televised campaign debates— a contest that had them snarling at and pummeling each other just short of coming to blows— how would they manage to don a veneer of cordiality?

They did put on a pretty good show, but the witticisms barely masked the barbs. Romney went first, and targeted Obama with eight of his jokes. He had good writers. They both did. Romney tried to dispel his robotic rep by demonstrating that he does indeed have a sense of humor. But he was out of his league. He smiled as he delivered the punchlines, but it was evident that he was making an effort. “As President Obama surveys the Waldorf banquet room,” Romney said, “with everyone in white tie and finery, you have to wonder what he’s thinking. So little time. So much to redistribute.”

The mark of a sense of humor is the ability to laugh at yourself, and the President did that in spades. He was self-deprecating, mocking himself and his notoriously poor performance at the first debate. Obama sent only three arrows Romney’s way, but made himself the butt of a joke six times. “As some of you may have noticed,” he began, “I had a lot more energy in our second debate. I felt really well rested after the nice long nap I had in the first debate.” The audience laughed, and Obama laughed with them. He looked relaxed. He was having a good time. “Although it turns out millions of Americans focused in on the second debate who didn’t focus in on the first debate—” He paused. “I happen to be one of them.” He apologized to Chris Matthews: “Four years ago I gave him a thrill up his leg.” (Matthews actually said that.) “This time around, I gave him a stroke” (referring to Matthews’ well publicized rant immediately after the first debate).

To be fair, Romney also mocked himself. “I’m pleased once again to have a chance to see Gov. Cuomo, who’s already being talked about for higher office. A very impressive fellow, but he may be getting ahead of himself. Let me get this straight. The man has put in one term as a governor; he has a father who happened to be a governor, and he thinks that’s enough to run for president!”

Both riffed on the G.O.P. campaign slogan, “We built it,” a twist on a line in one of Obama’s speeches. Romney spoke about St. Peter, who was commanded to build a church “upon this rock.” His many scoffers and skeptics, said Romney, were overheard saying, “If you’ve got a church, you didn’t build that.” When it was Obama’s turn, he reminisced about his college days in New York when he loved to go to Yankee Stadium, which was known as the House that Ruth Built. “Although he really did not build that,” quipped Obama. “I hope everybody’s aware of that.”

After the intensity of the second debate, it was refreshing to see them vying for the killer joke rather than the fatal blow.

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