A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House

October 31, 2008 | Insights

By Bob Latham

As the most drawn-out election process in modern political memory winds down, it is worth pausing to appreciate one of the great traditions of an American presidential campaign. No, it is not the debates, nor is it the stump speeches, nor is it the Democrat and Republican party conventions. Rather, it is the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner in New York City, which in most presidential election years has managed to snag the two competing candidates to headline the event.

This year, John McCain and Barack Obama continued that tradition, and the silly season in politics was replaced temporarily by a night of serious humor. Thus, competing pleas to Joe the Plumber, which characterized the final presidential debate the evening before, gave way to a night of good old-fashioned roasting and self-deprecating humor. Examples: McCain got the ball rolling by joking that Joe the Plumber had “recently signed a very lucrative contract with a wealthy couple to handle all the work on all seven of their houses.” Obama, in turn, commented that he was pleased to be at the Waldorf Astoria in New York where “from the doorstep you can see all the way to the Russian Tea Room.” And he quipped that his name “Barack” “is actually Swahili for ‘That One’.”

The question of whether candidates like McCain and Obama can naturally laugh at themselves in the presence of each other and take a good natured look at the whole political process, or whether they are forced to do so by this event, doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that one of the greatest products of a society that puts a premium on free speech is that vignettes from a spirited campaign for the highest office in the land are fair game for satire and humor, even by the combatants themselves.

A First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that creates an environment in which a tradition like the Al Smith dinner can exist is worth preserving, protecting and defending. And one of the comedic headliners at this year’s dinner will take an oath in January to do just that. Here’s hoping that, whoever the victor is next week, he appreciates this particular component of his oath.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

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Robert P. Latham
Partner, Dallas