David Litt takes a clear look at where we are now, as a political system
Four years ago, as a speechwriter for President Obama, I commissioned a binder full of women.
A little context. It was the morning of the Al Smith Dinner, the election-year tradition in which both parties’ nominees don white-tie attire and deliver comedy monologues to New York City’s elite. Our opponent, Governor Mitt Romney had recently used the words “binders full of women” while discussing gender parity in government. Eager to mock the clumsy phrase, I asked a staffer on the advance team to put together a prop.
But our binder never saw the light of day. Obama nixed the idea. I remember being disappointed by the president’s decision, and wondering if POTUS was phoning it in. Of the jokes that did make it into the final draft, one in particular stood out for its authenticity.
“In less than three weeks, voters in states like Ohio and Virginia and Florida will decide this incredibly important election. Which begs the question—what are we doing here?”
Fair point. Even in its best, most amicable years, the Al Smith dinner is a festival of uncomfortableness. Two candidates have spent the better part of a year locked in fierce, often personal, head-to-head competition. There’s something cruel about forcing them to pretend to enjoy one another’s company.
But looking back on it, there’s also something optimistic about the Al Smith dinner—or at least there was in 2012. I think this (along with a sensible aversion to prop comedy) is the real reason Obama said no to the idea of bringing a binder full of women onstage. Since 1945, the Al Smith dinner has been a democratic display of mutual, if slightly forced, respect. The candidates’ punchlines aren’t meant to suggest that politics is a joke, or a game. Rather, they acknowledge a bedrock principle of American society: Even in our most adversarial moments, we’re all on the same team. . .