WASHINGTON (CNN) — No one would confuse Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for happy warriors.
The rivals showed up Thursday night at a fabled staging post on the final stretch of presidential campaigns — the Al Smith charity dinner in New York.
Smith, the former New York governor and 1928 Democratic presidential nominee, was once dubbed the “happy warrior of the political battlefield” by Franklin Roosevelt.
But Trump and Clinton looked anything but happy when they limped off the 2016 campaign trail Thursday night.
They struggled to disguise the anger, bitterness and sheer open dislike that has pulsed through their recriminatory White House race, perhaps not surprisingly since he has threatened to throw her in jail and she says he’s a threat to the republic.
An evening known for sharp humor that often goes right up to the line but rarely crosses it quickly degenerated into an uncomfortable experience. They just imported the acrimony of Wednesday night’s debate to a new venue.
In short, the evening became an apt metaphor for the campaign.
Neither candidate seemed at ease or performed particularly well — after all, they are the most unpopular presidential hopefuls in recorded history.
But in the end, Trump seemed to come across as the more unacceptable — and appeared to misjudge the tone of the evening worse than Clinton.
“Donald had some very solid minutes early on and eventually he crossed the line and took it a little too far,” Al Smith V, whose family hosts the dinner, said in an interview on CNN’s “New Day” on Friday. “Hillary, on the other hand, was able to laugh at herself and at the same time not underplay any of the serious things Donald Trump has said or done,”
And everyone in attendance seemed to just want it to be over, much as the nation seems desperate to rid itself of the ugliest presidential race in decades.
Thursday’s dinner was notable because it lacked the genuine respect and even warmth that President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney showed when paying tribute to one another’s families at the same event four years ago — after throwing their jabs.
Political humor works best when there is at least some respect between the parties and everyone is in on the joke. It’s especially important for the person doing the roasting to also turn the humor on themselves, otherwise the barbs can come across as too harsh.
Obama and President George W. Bush proved themselves to be particularly adept at this.
But Trump clearly didn’t get the memo. Some of his jokes did hit the spot but many just seemed a little too cutting for the venue.
“We’ve learned so much from WikiLeaks. For example, Hillary believes that it is vital to deceive the people by having one public policy and a totally different policy in private,” Trump said, drawing boos — which are unheard of at this annual event.
Trump said, “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.”
Smith V said that joke changed the tone of the room.
“That’s a tough crowd to drop that line in front of,” he said. “To be honest with you, that certainly took the tone in a different direction, and you know, I think ultimately at the end of the day, that made things a lot harder for Hillary when, ultimately, she got the mic — she had some funny things that she had said, and I don’t think they got as many laughs as they could have because the tone in the room had shifted a bit.”
Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan offered a different picture the morning after, saying Trump gave some encouraging words to Clinton behind the scenes.
“When we were going in, I said could we pray together as we were waiting to be announced and after the prayer, Mr. Trump turned to Sec. Clinton and said, ‘You know, you are one tough and talented woman,’” Dolan told NBC’s “Today” on Friday. “Then he said this has been a good experience, this whole campaign, as tough as it’s been. And she said, ‘Donald, no matter what happens, we need to work together afterwards.”
Trump’s appearance was much like his debate performance: He started off well, but seemed to run out of energy and momentum and get more and more hard-edged the longer he went on.
He did make several good cracks.
He said the former secretary of state had bumped into him backstage and said “pardon me.”
And to be fair to Trump, it wasn’t exactly a Republican crowd. The gaggle of rich New Yorkers from business, politics and the media, in ballgowns and white tie and tails could hardly be more different than blue-collar, white working-class crowds that have flocked to his outsider message.
But by the time he reached his last jokes, Trump had clearly lost the room.
“According to her sworn testimony, Hillary has forgotten more things than most of us will ever, ever know — that I can tell you,” Trump said.
“We’re having some fun here tonight,” he deadpanned with all the enthusiasm as someone experiencing root canal surgery.
Clinton cut less close to the bone than Trump, but her speech also seemed to lack the generosity the evening requires.
At least the former secretary of state did not take herself quite as seriously as Trump.
“This is such a special event that I took a break from my rigorous nap schedule to be here,” she said, referring to Trump’s claim she lacks stamina.
Poking fun at the top-dollar fees that she racked up for corporate speeches, Clinton said: “It’s a treat for all of you, too, because I charge a lot for speeches like this.”
But Clinton is not a natural speechmaker — and her jokes sometimes came across as nakedly political.
Her best joke poked fun at Trump’s attitude towards women — though given recent accusations against the GOP nominee might not have been in the best of taste.
“People look at the Statue of Liberty and they see a proud symbol of our history as a nation of immigrants. A beacon of hope for people around the world.”
“Donald sees the Statue of Liberty and sees a 4. Maybe a 5 if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair,” Clinton added.
In the end, the off-color evening will have little impact on the presidential race. It’s probably too late after all, and no one is likely to be waiting to decide on their vote based on a tony dinner in Manhattan.
But like the election itself, it left a bad taste.
“2016 is now ruining everything in its wake,” former top Mitt Romney aide Kevin Madden said on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon.
“We have the Al Smith dinner that is supposed to be about collegiality and supposed to be about charity and they left a chill in the room.”