Essay: On Clint Eastwood

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U.S. political conventions have always had their strange moments, from Al Gore making out with his wife on stage to Pat Buchanan declaring a religious and cultural war to Zell Miller challenging Chris Matthews to a duel. But last Thursday night, Clint Eastwood may have topped them all.

On the final evening of the Republican National Convention, minutes before GOP nominee Mitt Romney himself spoke, the organizers of the convention set aside twelve minutes for the iconic actor and director to deliver a routine of improvised political comedy- a genre not only not historically suited to political conventions, but not particularly associated with Eastwood himself.

The convention organizers had teased a “mystery speaker” for Thursday night, leading to speculation that it was anyone from Sarah Palin to Tim Tebow (an unlikely choice, as his Jets were busy playing against Philadelphia that night.) Instead, Clint showed up. You’ve probably seen the clip by now, but if not…

The 82-year-old Hollywood legend mumbled, made a few jokes, mocked President Obama both for starting the war in Afghanistan (?) and being a lawyer (when Mitt Romney himself has a law degree from the same law school as the president.) Then, most strangely of all, he periodically began conversing with an empty chair, which he pretended was occupied by the president.

The reaction, from left to right, was one of mostly bewilderment; the MSNBC hosts reacted on the air with their mouths agape, while even some on Fox News acknowledged that it wasn’t Eastwood’s finest hour, and at any rate it was strange that the actor was given the slot rather than, say, an actual active political figure. But the convention hall reacted positively, while a groundswell on Twitter later attempted to rehabilitate the speech, as any criticism of Obama tends to find at least some positive audience online.

Overall, the Eastwood speech upstaged Romney’s, never a good sign on the last night of a convention.

What I found strangest about the speech was that while Eastwood has long been a staunch Republican, and even served a term in the mid-1980s as mayor of Carmel, Calif., he’s indicated in more recent work that his politics had become more idiosyncratic.

There was that TV ad for Chrysler, during last year’s Super Bowl, in which Clint praised the car company that had been a recipient of a federal bailout. And Clint has made a lot of movies the last few years that have antagonized the right to various degrees.

His Oscar-winning “Million Dollar Baby,” for instance, ended with an act of euthanasia, which caused right-wing critic Michael Medved to practically have an aneurysm. His “Flags of Our Fathers” took a super-cynical view of American military heroism, taking a revisionist view of the Battle of Iwo Jima, and then he turned around and made another movie- “Letters From Iwo Jima”- that looked at the battle from the Japanese side. And his “Invictus” was a story of racial reconciliation in which Nelson Mandela- not the right’s favorite figure, at least prior to 1990 or so- was the hero.

Eastwood’s most recent film, “J. Edgar,” was muddled in its politics, if only because it was muddled in every other way as well.

At any rate, he’s not the sort of older right-wing celebrity- like Ted Nugent, Chuck Norris, Jon Voight or Hank Williams, Jr.- who regularly pops off with unhinged, borderline-racist rants about Obama. Had any of them been given the slot, the befuddlement and outrage likely would’ve been much worse.

Then again, the GOP reportedly considered, and ultimately rejected, the use of a Ronald Reagan hologram. And of course, a Michele Bachmann prime time address probably would’ve been even more embarrassing.

Overall, the speech was a gift to political comedy, leading to one of Jon Stewart’s greatest moments ever on Friday night (“there’s an invisible Obama that only Republicans can see.”) Bill Hader will have two weeks to prepare an opening sketch on the Saturday Night Live season premiere.

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