Just how wrong did the media get Clint Eastwood?
posted at 12:45 pm on September 2, 2012 by Karl
Admittedly, I am late to evaluating Clint Eastwood’s RNC performance. However, the fact that the pundit class is still critiquing it days later is one indicator of how shrewd it was as political theater. Accordingly, it is worth noting just how wrong some of the Eastwood analysis has been, even from those defending the speech.
The harsh, conventional wisdom about Eastwood’s decidedly unconventional approach to the convention is that it was the ramblings of a senile old man. Even may of Eastwood’s defenders have described it as rambling. This likely makes Eastwood’s day.
After all, who is Clint Eastwood? He is one of the top actors, directors and producers of motion pictures in the world. Most of the world — and almost certainly everyone tuning in to the RNC Thursday night — knows this. Yet most of the analyses of his RNC appearance are based on the notion that we were not witnessing acting. That mass suspension of disbelief may be the highest tribute Eastwood will ever be paid as an actor. If you think the Eastwood on stage was the only Eastwood there is, watch him promoting J. Edgar on The Daily Show last November. I have little doubt he will be equally sharp promoting Trouble With the Curve in the next few weeks.
Moreover, as a director, Eastwood has a reputation of knowing exactly what he wants. Also, he does not prefer to do many takes: “The big question, for me, is how to do it *** so the actors can perform at their very best and with the spontaneity that you’d like to find so that the audience will feel like those lines have been said for the very first time, ever. Then you’ve got a believable scene.” That approach is entirely consistent with Eastwood’s talent as a jazz pianist, someone who enjoys improvising within a framework. The fact that Eastwood’s performance was not loaded into a teleprompter does not mean it was unplanned.
If you doubt that Eastwood was not simply winging it, don’t watch his performance — read the transcript. There may be no better indicator of just how intentional Eastwood’s performance is than to compare the visual impression he gave with the text delivered.
Eastwood begins with a touch of Admiral James Stockdale, but Clint answers the question of why he is there. The fact is that everyone really knows why Clint is there — to make a political statement. But Eastwood, in mentioning that Hollywood is perhaps not as monolithic as the stereotype suggests, is making a subtle suggestion to the audience he wants to reach: you may be part of some left-identifying group, but it’s okay to disagree and there may be other quiet dissenters in your group.
Eastwood then introduces the dramatic device of the empty chair, which in this context also echoes the political metaphor of the empty suit. This has been remarked upon, particularly as an echo of comedic dialogs from people like Bob Newhart, so I won’t dwell on it here, although it reappears below.
Eastwood then proceeds to use this comedic device to deliver — as Mark Steyn noted in passing — some of the toughest political attacks on President Obama heard during the entire RNC. A number of the traditional speakers strove to play on swing voters’ disenchantment with the failed promises of Hope and Change. But notice how tired and traditional that just sounded in your head. Mitt Romney (likely with help from a professional political speechwriter) did it pretty well: “You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.” But did anyone do it as powerfully and emotionally as Eastwood’s segue from everyone — himself included — crying with joy at Obama’s historic victory to the tears we now shed over 23 million still unemployed, which Clint bluntly called a national disgrace?
This was the first part of Eastwood’s simple and effective argument. Eastwood points out — in a prodding, joking manner — that Obama was elected to bring peace and prosperity, but failed to bring either. That Eastwood may disagree with the GOP on some war issues is perfectly alright in this context, because, as suggested earlier and explored further below, Eastwood is not really targeting Republicans.
Eastwood then arrives at his Joe Biden joke: “Of course we all know Biden is the intellect of the Democratic party. Just kind of a grin with a body behind it.” That last part is not accidental in a performance featuring an empty chair. But the first part is even more dangerous. For the last 3+ years, we have been accustomed to having Biden as safe material for humor, while Obama has been kept off-limits. Eastwood leverages the latter into the former, suggesting that Sheriff Joe is the real brains of the operation. Ouch! No wonder Team Obama got annoyed enough to respond.
Having delivered these punches regarding our dire situation with velvet gloves, Eastwood then does the softest of sells for the Romney/Ryan ticket. As Jesse Walker noted, it was almost more of a pitch for Not Obama. Again, there was nothing accidental about the nature or placement of this speech withing Clint’s imagined dialogue.
Eastwood concludes by summing up the GOP case to undecideds and rebutting the main point Dems seem to advance for Obama. First, “[p]oliticians are employees of ours… And when somebody does not do the job, we got to let ‘em go.” Second, “we don’t have to be metal [sic] masochists and vote for somebody that we don’t really even want in office just because they seem to be nice guys or maybe not so nice guys if you look at some of the recent ads going out there.”
Eastwood was not “rambling.” He improvised within a structure, making a clear and concise case for dumping Obama.
Eastwood’s approach to this performance was not accidental. Eastwood is — by reason of his resume — the foremost expert in the world on Clint Eastwood fans. Harry Callahan may have understood that a man has to know his limitations. Eastwood knows his… and he also knows his strengths. A man does not produce and star in dozens of Clint Eastwood movies without having thought deeply about and received the benefit of copious market research into what appeals to people about Clint Eastwood.
From the standpoint of political science, it would be fair to hypothesize that appeals to both disaffected and libertarian voters (which is something of a feat) in a way that Mitt Romney could never hope to do. More colloquially, it would be fair to suggest that Eastwood appeals to the sort of people who gravitated to H. Ross Perot in the Nineties. He appeals to people who distrust institutions, who think that conventional politics fails the American people. The sort of people for whom Harry Callahan, Will Munny, Frank Horrigan, Luther Whitney and Walt Kowalski have an emotional resonance.
So why would Eastwood deliver a conventional political speech? Had he delivered his material as a series of slick-sounding zingers, it would have been the sort of speech the media expected from Chris Christie’s keynote address. But that would have been: (a) not in keeping with the Romney campaign’s softer approach; and (b) diminishing and disappointing to Eastwood’s target audience. Most of the chattering class failed to grasp this. Some on Team Romney failed to grasp this. But the evidence coming in, both anecdotally and from polling, suggests Eastwood still has his finger on the popular pulse in a way pols and pundits never will.