Obama and McCain pal around at Catholic fundraiser
Presidential rivals swap bitter campaigning for warm mockery at Al Smith charity dinner in New York
Forget Tina Fey, the true comedians of the presidential campaign are the candidates.
Last night, Barack Obama and John McCain set aside their increasingly bitter arsenal of personal attacks, insinuations and innuendo and warmly chided each other at a charity dinner packed with New York media and political bigshots.
At the Alfred E Smith dinner, named for a pioneering Catholic four-term New York governor, the two senators joked about the themes of their campaign, with plenty of self-deprecation – a scene welcomed by citizens and political professionals alike.
McCain displayed a wit and good-natured humour seldom on display during the brutal election campaign, which must have left his advisers wondering why he does not have the same effect on his supporters as the crowd of political luminaries in New York last night. The Arizona senator was funnier than Obama, and appeared at ease in a room packed with Democrats.
“There are signs of hope even in the most unexpected places, even in this room full of proud Manhattan Democrats,” he said. “I can’t shake that feeling that some people here are pulling for me; I’m delighted to see you here tonight, Hillary.”
McCain also riffed on the lingering tension between Obama and the former president Bill Clinton.
“When Larry King asked President Clinton a couple weeks ago what was the delay and why wasn’t he out there on the trail for Barack, Bill said his hands were tied until the end of the Jewish high holidays,” McCain said, referring to the CNN talk show host.
“Now, you’ve got to admire that ecumenical spirit. I just know Bill would like to be out there now, stumping for Barack until the last hour of the last day. Unfortunately, he is constrained by his respect for any voters who might be observing the Zoroastrian new year.”
McCain quipped about his own wealth – in a well-publicised gaffe this summer McCain could not remember how many houses he owned – and referred to Joe the Plumber, his new campaign mascot.
“[Obama] claims that this honest, hardworking small businessman could not possibly have enough income to face a tax increase under the Obama plan,” he said. “What they don’t know is Joe the Plumber recently signed a very lucrative contract with a wealthy couple to handle all the work on all seven of their houses.”
Before relinquishing the microphone to Obama, McCain played on the “expectations game”, in which the campaigns engaged in the run-up to the debates this fall.
“Now, of course, it would be unfair – and even a little unkind – to put my opponent on the spot before he gets up here or to throw him off his game with unreasonably high expectations,” McCain said. “But I do need to warn you, ladies and gentlemen, you all are about to witness the funniest performance in history – Senator Obama, the microphone is all yours.”
Obama, who accepted the ribbing with laughs and broad smiles, poked fun at his own convention acceptance speech, which he delivered before more than 80,000 people at an outdoor football stadium on an elaborately constructed stage.
“I was originally told we’d be able to move this outdoors to Yankee Stadium,” he said of the dinner. Then, pausing and surveying the room, he said: “Could somebody tell me what happened to the Greek columns that I requested?”
He quipped that the Fox News channel, the conservative-leaning cable broadcaster that Democrats say repeats scurrilous rumours about Obama, reported he had fathered two African-American children “in wedlock”.
The two men had kind and respectful words for each other. Obama praised McCain’s service in the Vietnam war, saying few Americans had served their country with “the same honour and distinction” as the Arizona senator, a former Navy pilot who was a prisoner of war for more than five years Vietnam.
McCain said Obama was “an impressive fellow in many ways” and praised “his great skill, energy and determination”. He also noted that Obama was positioned to make history as the first African-American president, and said: “I can’t wish my opponent luck, but I do wish him well”.