Kathleen Parker: You can dress him up, but Trump is Trump
WASHINGTON — If Beltway insiders and other East Coast elites ever wondered why so many Americans prefer Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, all they need do is watch a rerun of Thursday night’s 71st annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner.
There they were in their finery, A-listers from the once-cherished institutions of church, state and the Fourth Estate — including the two aforementioned major-party presidential candidates; Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the evening’s host; and, hardly least, Maria Bartiromo’s decolletage.
No one watching could have missed the cleavage clad in candy apple red beneath long sparkling earrings, as Bartiromo’s elbow-length gloves fluttered like white doves directing traffic to the heart of things. A flickering female vision floating in the TV frame among four, dusty-white males, she appeared as one of those online ads that distract readers as they try to concentrate.
Oh, but the delectable humor, jarring jokes and quivering quips — the titters they brought to bleached smiles and knowing nods — and all for the good of disadvantaged children for whom the dinner raised $6 million. What could be better than dining with a few close friends, amusing oneself as the future president and the inevitable loser trade insults, as millions of viewers remember why they hate Washington?
Homage also was paid to the dinner’s namesake, Al Smith, the first Catholic to run for president of the United States and at a time (the 1920s) when Catholics were viewed as Satan’s spawn by people such as Trump’s own father, who participated in a KKK-sponsored, anti-Catholic rally.
God bless America, how far we’ve come.
But not really, as Trump came to remind the boo-and-hisser crowd. As though he cared. And, as though all the deplorables and Trump sympathizers watching at home weren’t perfectly delighted by Trump’s performance. To them, the dais was a diorama of self-congratulatory elites, smugly tittering at insider humor and then, suddenly, betraying white-tie outrage at their redneck Gatsby, who hocked up his couth and hurled it into the nearest vat of Dom Perignon.
The dinner is supposed to be a gentle roast at which political foes parry a bit but always with rubber rapiers. Attendees faithfully present themselves as priests and priestesses of the Highest Order of Civility, Good Humor & Charitable Hearts. A good time is supposed to be had by all.
Trump knows the rules all right and even mentioned that he’d been attending the dinner for years, beginning when he was a young man accompanying his father. But being Trump means never playing by the rules.
He began his remarks well enough, looking rather presidential and certainly comfortable in a formal environment bloated with swells. But Trump carries within him a little bit of Gollum mixed with a touch of Truman Capote. Like Gollum, he loathes what he loves and can’t resist sabotaging himself. Like Capote, he turns on his own. If Capote alienated all his “swans,” the belles of Upper East Side New York, by betraying their confidences in “La Cote Basque, 1965,” Trump betrayed the hopes of his powerful and wealthy colleagues that he could be trusted to behave.
Some of his jokes were very funny: “After listening to Hillary rattle on and on and on, I don’t think so badly of Rosie O’Donnell anymore,” he said. When Clinton took her turn, she jabbed back with: “And looking back, I’ve had to listen to Donald for three full debates, and he says I don’t have any stamina!”
But about midway through, Trump’s lightness turned dark.
“Here she is tonight, in public, pretending not to hate Catholics,” he said of Clinton, who was seated next to Dolan. (Boos.) Trump was referring to the WikiLeaks email in which an exchange among Clinton campaign staffers seemed to be condescending to Catholics.
He earned more boos when he said Clinton was so corrupt that she’d been kicked off the Watergate Committee. And, “She knows a lot about how government works. And according to her sworn testimony, Hillary has forgotten more things than most of us will ever, ever, ever know.”
Reading over the transcript, the jokes don’t seem so bad — or so good. Delivery really is everything. But watching the speeches in real time, Trump’s cuts contained a palpable hint of malice that wasn’t present in Clinton’s.
To the booing select, Trump’s performance was the final nail in his coffin. But to the great “unwashed,” you can be sure, Trump was doing his job and sticking it to the elites, which is what tens of millions of Americans deeply yearn to do.
Kathleen Parker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post.