After President Obama and Mitt Romney engaged in a debate Tuesday evening so bitter and contentious that you could almost see the steam rising from the head of one of Romney’s sons in the audience, it was a relief to see the two combatants temporarily put down their spears and swap jokes at Thursday night’s 67th annual Al Smith white-tie charity dinner in New York.
Since 1960, when Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy were speakers, the annual dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria to benefit Catholic charities has been a high-profile stop for the two main presidential candidates. In 1976, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter razzed one another; in 1980, Carter and Ronald Reagan mixed it up; Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush went at it in 1988 followed in 2000 by Al Gore and George W. Bush. And four years ago Obama matched wits with Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
While all presidential campaigns are marred with nasty exchanges and low blows, this year’s contest seems most notable for the poorly disguised animus between the Democratic president and his Republican rival. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and wealthy businessman, practically called Obama a liar to his face during the first debate in Denver earlier this month, and the president returned the favor earlier this week at Hofstra University on Long Island by dismissing just about everything Romney said as not true.
But the Thursday night dinner was so light hearted and brimming with back-pats and bonhomie that Romney said it was hard to believe he and the president were the same people who clashed Tuesday night at a town-hall style debate where cameras caught one of Romney’s five sons, Josh, frowning and grimacing in the audience, while son Tagg said later he wanted to “take a swing” at the president. “We were chatting pleasantly this evening as if Tuesday night never happened,” Romney said.
Both men seemed well prepared and equally matched in their performances last night. Here are the highlights of the evening:
Romney’s Best Lines:
- On the Vice President: “I was hoping that President Obama would bring Joe Biden along, because he'll laugh at anything.”
- Noting for the wealthy audience that Obama’s term was coming to an end: “You have to wonder what he is thinking – so little time, so much to redistribute.”
- Describing how he, as a Mormon, prepared for the debates: “First, refrain from alcohol for 65 years before the debate. Second, find the biggest available straw man, and then just mercilessly attack him. Big Bird didn’t even see it coming.”
- In a slap at the news media: “My job is to lay out a positive vision for the future and the country, and their job is to make sure no one else finds out about it.” Anticipating the headlines coming out of last night’s dinner, “Obama Embraced by Catholics, Romney Dines with Rich People.”
- Finally: The president's remarks tonight are brought to you by the letter O and the number 16 trillion.
Obama’s Best Lines:
- During standing ovation for the president: “Everyone please take your seats, otherwise Clint Eastwood will yell at them.”
- On his vice president: “I’ve heard some people say, ‘Barack, you’re not as young as you used to be. Where’s that golden smile? Where’s that pep in your step?’ And I say, ‘Settle down, Joe. I’m trying to run a cabinet meeting here.'"
- On his lethargic performance against Romney in the first presidential debate: “As some of you may have noticed, I had a lot more energy in our second debate. I felt really rested after the nice long nap.... I learned that there are worse things that can happen to you on your anniversary than forgetting to buy a gift.”
- On Romney’s fabulous wealth: “Earlier today, I went shopping at some stores in Midtown. I understand Governor Romney went shopping for some stores in Midtown.”
- On Paul Ryan being caught exaggerating his time in a marathon race, “Sometimes it feels like this race has dragged on forever, but Paul Ryan assured me that we’ve only been running for 2 hours and 50-something minutes.”