The Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner is one of my favorite annual political events. It is a chance to see the political heavy hitters lighten up and have a bit of fun at their own and their opponents' expense. It is a rare treat to watch people on whom we hang so many of our most passionate beliefs and fears and expectations clarify for us that it is possible to have a sense of humor about ourselves without diminishing the seriousness of the causes in which we can become so invested.
This year's dinner featured someone I have missed greatly. John McCain has always struck me as one of the few politicians who is able to be intentionally funny, whose wise-alecky, self-deprecating style had for years made him a favorite on "The Daily Show," the late-night talk shows, and even SNL. The seriousness with which he has approached his run for the Presidency, the carefulness with which he has had to package himself for National consumption, and the deadly earnestness of his opponent's supporters have all come together to drain much of the sparkle from someone I was really looking forward to watching spar with the White House press corps.
For one night at least, though (and hopefully for much time to come), the old Mac was back, masterfully mixing pointed barbs with what only the most jaded could fail to see as genuine regard and respect for his Democratic counterpart (who himself showed an ability to take the jokes and the compliments with more or less equal aplomb and grace).
Here's Part One of McCain's speech:
And here's part two:
Obama's speech ended on a rather more somber tone than McCain's (the tribute to Tim Russert was especially effective and moving). Still, he displayed better comic timing than I'd expected, and more or less matched McCain's skill at poking fun at himself (his references to his own celebrity status were at times straight-up hilarious). It was a side of the Democratic candidate which I very much enjoyed seeing.
Here's part one:
And here's part two:
In a time when politics can become so personal, when the joy of the contest can be swamped by an intensity which is as understandable as it can be unfortunate, it is events like these which remind us that even such powerful emotions occur within the context of that most extraordinary of historical oddities: the orderly and peaceful transfer of power. Democrat or Republican, it is vital that we never forget to be grateful for the democracy of our Republic.
The stakes of this election are no laughing matter...but what will any of it matter if we lose our ability to laugh?