A break in hostilities for Obama and Romney
It has become de rigeur to lament the bitterness of this divisive election campaign and Tuesday’s fight night debate between Barack and Mitt merely proved the point.
This usually polite society still gulps when presidential candidates interrupt each other and hiss like alley cats. In Britain we are long past that point in a system where the sovereign is treated with kid gloves – but never touched – and where the chief executives are left to slug it out.
Prime Minister’s Questions, aired on C-span, the public information channel here, is porn for political geeks. But America has something that Britain does not.
It is called the Alfred Smith Memorial Dinner and takes place on the anniversary of the death of Al Smith in 1945.
This Mr Smith was a former governor of the state of New York. He was also the first catholic to run – unsuccessfully – for president. The dinner is white tie, hosted by the catholic diocese of New York and collects money, lots of it, for needy children.
It takes place in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in what could not be a more polite and stuffy setting. But since Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy appeared here side by side it has been the tradition for the two presidential candidates to attend in the white heat of the election campaign, bury the hatchet for one night, make nice and crack a few jokes.
That makes it sound rather boring. In fact this is a chance for the candidates to poke fun at themselves – in public and on TV – in a way which most British prime ministerial candidates would probably not dare to. So Barack Obama stood up and declared last night that there are worse things on an anniversary night than forgetting your wife’s present. He was of course referring to his somnambulant performance in the first debate.
Mitt Romney joked that the best debate preparation was sixty five years of not having a drink, in reference to his Mormon abstinence. Obama quipped that he had been shopping AT some Midtown stores that morning while Mitt had been shopping FOR some stores.
Mitt said the press would cover the dinner with two headlines: Obama embraced by catholics and Romney dines with rich people. He added, looking around the room filled with smart men and bejeweled women: finally Ann and I get to put on the kind of stuff we wear in the house. It was funny, trust me. It was refreshing and it served a purpose. The candidates could neutralise some of the stuff that clings and hurts by making fun of it themselves.
The debates have now been watched by 132 million Americans. I am not sure how many watched at the Al Smith dinner or heard about the one liners, but it had the same effect as German and British soldiers toasting each other and singing carols in the first world war trenches on Christmas Day. It made for a brief glimpse of humanity before the slaughter ploughs on.
Follow Matt on Twitter via @mattfrei