Everybody is still scratching their heads over Clint Eastwood’s rambling, incoherent, eleven-minute warm-up for Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention last night. Most agree it was a debacle, if only because it soaked up so much precious prime-time air (out of the one hour the networks were willing to give up) and allowed Clint Eastwood to bump Mitt Romney’s newly revealed humanity from the headlines the next day. Ann Romney was at least honest enough to suggest she’d have preferred the slickly produced family-scrapbook video in that time slot over the aging action star talking, Harvey-style, to an invisible Obama.
But the debacle was actually perfect for this most fake of conventions, whose main purpose—the eventual redistribution of wealth to the very top—had to be obscured by a fleet of outright lies (so much so that even the traditional media feel forced to point them out). Clint Eastwood is an artist, and the rich moral ambiguities of his movies don’t boil down to simple political agitprop. And that was the biggest truth of the night: the GOP is now running on the fumes of its own nostalgia, and its ideological revision of history can leave even the most ardent partisan deeply confused about what to believe.
Ambiguity is something this party says it abhors, almost as much as it abhors President Obama, but this convention and Clint Eastwood in particular just oozed it. Take the screen grab the RNC used as backdrop for Clint’s performance, from The Outlaw Josie Wales, a movie about a Confederate soldier who refuses to surrender at the end of the Civil War. On one level, it’s a Western, with the flinty theme of the loner who comes to town and resolves conflict by killing everybody on one side or the other. The Republicans clearly wanted that guy to show up last night, and they’d dearly love to just shoot the rest of the New Deal and all the modern realities that go with it.
But Josie Wales winds up protecting a ragtag, multiracial band of bullied misfits. It’s not The Legend of Billy Jack exactly, but it’s not throwing peanuts at an African-American camerawoman for CNN, either.
Clint just can’t help whispering out of both sides of his mouth, as he did in the Chrysler commercial he made for halftime at this year’s Super Bowl. In it, he said we should all overcome political differences and rally behind Detroit’s comeback. Republicans were outraged. They saw the ad as an endorsement of the auto bailout, and therefore of Obama. Clint gave a wry, ambiguous explanation, and seemed to think we should all just get over it.
Last night, when Eastwood put F-bombs in the mouth of an invisible Obama (who seems less likely than, say, LBJ or W to have a potty mouth), it was pretty raw, even for a political convention. But Eastwood’s grievances against Obama were muddled—he seemed to object both to Obama’s announcing a “target date for bringing everybody home” from Afghanistan and to his failing to “bring them home tomorrow morning.” Either way, it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the GOP’s appetite for war. He closed by saying, “Whether you are a Democrat or Republican or whether you’re Libertarian or whatever, you are the best.”
Eastwood’s appearance was clearly intended to project an image of manhood and self-reliance that the party likes to say justifies its Social Darwinism. But in the end his almost doddering delivery undermined that very idea.
It’s too bad that the 82-year-old icon had to sacrifice some of the luster of his life’s work to tell this truth, however inadvertently, to a vast national TV audience, but it was an important message to send anyway. It’s the same message sent by a Republican strategist earlier this week when he said this campaign will be “the last time” anyone tries to win the presidency solely with white votes. And it’s similar to the message Lindsey Graham sent when he said, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys” to make the current GOP viable in the long term.
That’s the truth Clint Eastwood told last night, and it’s neither good nor bad; it’s just ugly.