There isn’t much point in trying to divine a grand strategy behind Clint Eastwood’s appearance at the Republican National Convention. It seems strange to think that a crucial block of time would be given over to what was, by all accounts, an “improv” chat (Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom’s description), given both the tightly scripted nature of the modern political convention, and Mitt Romney’s penchant for careful planning.
But that’s what we got. Condoleeza Rice’s ability to deliver a powerful and complex speech largely from memory, with minimal reference to prepared material, is amazing… but she didn’t just amble onto the stage and let ‘er rip. I don’t know that anyone has ever previously done that at a major political convention, certainly not in the modern media age.
Naturally, Clint (it just seems wrong to refer to him as “Eastwood”) received mixed reviews for his performance. Enthusiastic Republican voters generally thought his “Invisible Obama” routine was hilarious. Obama supporters were considerably less amused. “Clint, my hero, is coming across as sad and pathetic,” said film critic Roger Ebert via Twitter. “He didn’t need to do this to himself. It’s unworthy of him.”
That’s a pretty harsh curve for grading an 82-year-old man delivering an improvised speech in front of an enormous crowd, as the warm-up for a young superstar senator and the Republican candidate for President of the United States. But there’s nothing surprising about Eastwood’s jibes provoking anger among Obama supporters. I strongly suspect Clint isn’t surprised, or that he cares very much. And if a comparable roasting of Mitt Romney occurs at the Democrat convention, Republicans will probably find it much less amusing than the convention delegates and liberal spectators.
Was talking to an invisible Obama in an empty chair demeaning to the President? Good. Now Obama knows how he made millions of business owners feel.
The point of Clint’s appearance wasn’t just to loosen up the crowd with a few laughs. He was there to provide more than humor or star power. The Man With No Name rode onto the high plains of the RNC stage to deliver something else: validation.
The intended recipient was not Mitt Romney, the convention delegates, or even Republican voters, but rather wavering independents. Clint was there to tell them it’s OK to find Obama, his ugly campaign operation, and his increasingly shrill band of die-hard defenders ridiculous. It’s OK to laugh at them. (You’d need a heart of stone not to laugh at the MSNBC panel’s reaction to the entire evening. It’s even funnier to think that there are people who still take MSNBC seriously as some sort of “news” network, instead of the longest Saturday Night Live skit in broadcast history.)
We already knew it was OK to make fun of the absurd Joe Biden – which should not diminish anyone’s anger that such an vicious and foolish man was placed a heartbeat from the Presidency – but Clint took it up a notch: “Joe Biden is kind of a grin with a body behind it.” Perfect.
It’s OK to dismiss the brutal slander of the Obama campaign with humor, as Clint did when Invisible Obama supposedly gave him profane insults to relay to Mitt Romney. The silly notion of Obama as a serene, cool, Spock-like figure floating above the political fray is gone forever, but Clint shoveled a little dirt on its grave with those jokes. The pained over-reaction of Obama defenders does them no credit, and will not serve them well in the election. Americans are a humorous people who value the ability to take a joke. A thin-skinned campaign that appears to be cracking walnuts with its clenched butt cheeks usually turns them off.
And it’s OK to let Obama go, as Eastwood said, in what I think will prove to be his most widely quoted line: “When somebody does not do the job, you’ve got to let them go.” The significance of that statement, coupled with the raspy straight-shooting delivery of Dirty Harry, should not be underestimated.
A good deal of the Obama campaign effort, particular from his media allies, comes down to portraying votes against him as racism – as if the public has a moral duty to re-elect the First Black President, no matter how ghastly a failure he has been. (Swing by the MSNBC comedy show and check out Chris Matthews for the extreme low-brow version of this argument. Matthews portrays even relatively mild criticism of his beloved President as coded racism. The other day, he decided references to “Chicago” are encrypted racist appeals.) Independent voters really do need some inoculation against this argument.
There are people who await cultural and social permission to express their dissatisfaction with Obama. Mitt Romney gave it during his speech, in a more expanded and refined way – he said he understood the excitement of voting for Hope and Change, but for many of those voters, a profound sense of disappointment has set in. Clint did it by describing 23 million unemployed Americans as a “disgrace,” pointing out that “politicians are employees of ours,” and reminding voters that eventually it becomes necessary to dismiss under-performing employees.
Actually, it was interesting to note how hard some of Clint’s deadly serious lines hit, because of the strange comedy surrounding them. Is that what he had in mind all along?
Who knows what impact this will have? Celebrity endorsements receive wide play with the public, thanks to the popularity of the celebs, but a lot of people tend to tune out whatever they actually say. Far more people are interested in hearing a favorite actor talk than seriously taking political advice from him. Maybe Clint will inspire more Hollywood conservatives and libertarians to come out of the closet and speak up. Or maybe his performance will ultimately be digested by the public as a strange moment of comedy, which produced a bit of short-lived controversy, but little lasting effect.
Either way, it was an interesting, amusing, and very unusual snapshot of a growing preference cascade against Barack Obama.