The music couldn’t have been more fitting when Clint Eastwood walked on the Republican National Convention stage to a rendition of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’s theme.
Eastwood’s speech, though, was more bad than ugly and far more ugly than good.
In 12 rambling minutes, Eastwood both wowed and puzzled. His more lucid and plain-spoken points were lost amid a meandering and muttering monologue involving suggestive crudities and an imaginary President Barack Obama in an empty chair.
But the bizarre performance art Thursday at a national convention reflected less poorly on Eastwood (aging actors are supposed to be eccentric), than on Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign.
Indeed, if Romney wins the presidency this fall, it could be in spite of his campaign, not because of it.
Consider: on the most-important night of Romney’s political life, his campaign allowed an aging actor to participate in a highly scripted primetime event with no script. Actors love scripts. If they don’t have them, they can wind up talking to chairs.
And when Eastwood said he wanted to bring a chair onstage, why did no one simply say “no” or “why” or “have you had your Thorazine this morning?”
But Eastwood went up there, unplugged and unchecked with a piece of furniture.
The mockery followed within moments when someone launched a fake Twitter handle, “Invisible Obama,” which attracted nearly 67,000 followers in less than four days.
The president got in on the act, Tweeting a photo of him sitting with his advisors in a leather chair with “The President” embossed in bronze plate. “This seat’s taken,” the picture said.
A new internet meme was also born: “Eastwooding,” in which people photograph themselves next to an empty chair. And, four days on, pundits were still talking about Eastwood’s speech as a mistake.
This won’t kill Romney’s campaign. He gave a solid speech Thursday when he was nominated. He remains essentially tied neck-and-neck with Obama in crucial swing states like Florida.
But speeches matter and have an effect. That’s why the campaign scheduled Eastwood in primetime, at 10 p.m. After the threat of Hurricane Isaac dampened the mood and delayed the convention, Eastwood’s hot air was not much help.
Eastwood’s speech was so odd that, when Florida Sen. Marco Rubio followed him, he seemed to joke about what Eastwood was drinking when he took a sip from a water bottle at the podium.
“I think I just drank Clint Eastwood’s water,” Rubio smiled.
Unlike Eastwood’s speech, Rubio’s was scripted. Too scripted. He had written it himself. He could have given it with his eyes closed.
Instead, the convention staff — which is really an offshoot of Romney’s campaign — put the words on a teleprompter. It seemed to distract Rubio, who appeared out of rhythm. He muffed a closing line when he called for more government instead of less.
Another problem with Rubio’s speech: it was leaked hours before by an unknown convention/Romney staffer. It took a little freshness away from the speech. And it undoubtedly rattled him just a tad before he introduced Romney and followed Eastwood.
Rubio’s speech almost never happened anyway thanks, again, to Romney’s campaign staffers. They wanted to boot Rubio from the primetime slot at one point. And, last month when Rubio was launching the tour to plug his best-selling book, anonymous Romney staffers falsely leaked word that Rubio wasn’t on the vice-presidential shortlist at all.
In each case, Romney’s campaign played with estranging the party’s most high-profile Hispanic, who can help deliver votes in the biggest swing state in the nation, Florida.
By Sunday, Rubio’s speech was an afterthought on the news talk shows, which focused on the speeches of Romney and Eastwood in almost equal measures.
That’s damaging. When an unflinching Republican governor like Scott Walker said on MSNBC that he “cringed” during parts of the speech, it’s a problem. When Romney’s wife, Ann, was uncomfortable in discussing the speech the following day, it’s a problem.
Just after Romney spoke, the campaign put out a defensive statement praising Eastwood’s speech for firing up the crowd. It did at times. But Romney already had those votes in the hall. Many at home might have a different reaction, especially after seeing replayed snippets of it.
“He spoke from the heart with a classic improv sketch which everyone at the convention loved,” Stuart Stevens, a top Romney adviser told the New York Times. He said it was “an honor that a great American icon would come and talk about the failure of the current president.”
Stevens provided Eastwood some talking points, which the actor incorporated. Eastwood said he “cried” for the 23 million unemployed people in the United States. And he won big applause for mentioning the president’s failed promise to close Gitmo.
At that point, Eastwood pretended to be interrupted by Invisible Obama.
“I thought maybe it’s an excuse and, ah, oh,” he fumbled. “What do you mean: ‘shut up’?”
Eastwood then suggestively faulted Obama because he “didn’t check with the Russians” before the Afghanistan invasion that began under President Bush. Then, in talking about bringing the troops home, Eastwood pretended he was interrupted by Invisible Obama again.
“I’m not going to shut up. It’s my turn,” Eastwood said.
“What?” Eastwood continued in his mock discussion with the empty chair. “What do you want me to tell Romney? I can’t tell him to do that, can’t tell him to do that to himself … you’re absolutely crazy.”
Yes. The Invisible Obama in the chair on stage is the crazy one.
Eastwood also said lawyers shouldn’t be president, ignoring the law degree held by Romney — or the profession, say, of iconic presidents like John Adams or Abraham Lincoln, the father of the Republican Party.
Whether any of this matters or not is unclear in a campaign where a top advisor said “we're not going let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”
In calling for Obama to be “let go,” Eastwood made a slashing motion across his neck — an act that would earn a player a 15-yard penalty in college football. The crowd cheered and chanted: “Let him go!”
Eastwood also sounded nonpartisan notes when he pointed out that “politicians are employees of ours. They’re just going to come around and beg for votes every few years. It’s the same old deal.”
It is. But an actor arguing with an empty chair at a convention? That’s definitely new.
“We don’t have to be mental masochists and vote for somebody that we don’t really 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 said.
“Ok,” he closed. “You want to make my day, huh?”
The crowd cheered.
“Alright,” he said, reprising his Dirty Harry trademark. “I’ll start it, you finish it. Go Ahead…”
The crowd roared back: “Make my day!”
It sure didn’t make Romney’s, though.