Saturday, September 1, 2012

Tampa: Crazy Dirty Harry

IIN WHAT was either campaign performance art gone wrong or a not-quite-brilliant satiric jab at President Obama gone sideways, Clint Eastwood put on a little ... show at the GOP convention last night, something that they’ll be talking about longer and with more emotion than the speech people came to see. His new film (opening Sept. 21) is “Trouble With the Curve.” Last night he apparently tried out some new material for another project: “Trouble With Coherent Thought.”

The appearance of the Oscar-winning movie icon was widely anticipated before the convention; rumors circulated that he would be the “mystery guest” to speak for six minutes before Mitt Romney accepted the nomination. On MSNBC, Al Sharpton said beforehand: “Isn’t it amazing? The guy who starred as the hero with the unshakeable moral code is stepping up for a candidate who never met a position he didn’t like.”

What Team Romney expected was three or four minutes of Obama vilified. What they got was almost 11 minutes of something else again: Eastwood unplugged (or unhinged). In an apparently unscripted performance, Clint Eastwood held court with an empty chair, and a description in words isn’t enough. If you’re one of the 19 people on the planet who hasn’t seen the Eastwood act ... Feast your eyes.

You can almost see the man waving a .44 Auto-Mag and screaming at the neighbor kids to get off his imaginary lawn.

Ann Romney, matriarch of the Romney clan, looked stricken sitting in the audience. While the reaction in the hall was largely otherwise predictably raucous — anything less or anything else would have been seen as disrespectful of the event and the Party — the blogosphere was not so disposed to charity.

Roger Ebert tweeted that Eastwood’s performance was “sad and pathetic. ... It’s unworthy of him.”

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The inescapable question has already surfaced: How did Team Romney get it so wrong? How did the most pathologically scripted, relentlessly on-message, reflexively secretive presidential campaign of the modern era decide to wing it at the very moment when detail and precision was absolutely necessary?

Bloggers and cubicle drones, analysts and pundits, acting coaches and shrinks will be dissecting this from now until Election Day (and we’ll sure as hell be talking about it until then) but the answer is clear, if not immediately obvious: The choice of Clint Eastwood was the Romney campaign’s latest example of placating the conse'rvative base.

In Clint Eastwood, Team Romney thought it had discovered a kindred spirit, a plain-spoken true believer with Hollywood cred. The convention planners obviously thought the actor-director (a longtime Republican and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans) would deliver a full-throated defense of Romney, and a lively excoriation of President Obama.

The Romney campaign no doubt believed that Eastwood’s politics were reliably conservative enough that he could be part of one more unnecessary overture to the severely conservative conservatives Romney can’t stop courting. They trusted Eastwood to be what they believed him to be: someone who’d cut President Obama down to size and galvanize the convention audience with a gritty, deliciously partisan call to arms.

Never before in the history of American political conventions have expectations so thoroughly, outlandishly run aground.

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WITHIN MINUTES of Eastwood’s outburst, the Team Romney tweetmasters had started to put their spin on things — the crowd loved it, the candidates loved it, this is no big deal. Shortly after that, the punditburo started airing its own expectations of heads rolling, of someone being fired from the campaign for tactical malpractice. That’s unlikely to happen for three good reasons:

First, it’s a matter of messaging. After immediately downplaying any damaging impact of the Eastwood affair on the Romney campaign, Team Romney can’t turn around now and make a big deal out of it (by firing people) without contradicting its own earlier minimizing reaction.

It’s a matter of optics. They can’t make a big deal out of it because, from a purely self-protective, Machiavellian perspective, to start dismissing people from the campaign over this incident would show weakness, it would be a tacit admission that the Romney campaign was affected, or even wounded, by this — something the campaign is loathe to do.

Then it’s a matter of logistics. Breaking in new high-level campaign ops so close to the election, getting new people up to speed at the eleventh hour, would create as many problems as it would solve.

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Bottom line: The Romney campaign is stuck with another memorable addition to its ever-expanding chapter in the Blooper Reel of American Presidential Politics. The campaign, in its moment of greatest triumph, received yet another distraction from the focus on the economy considered Mitt Romney’s strong suit.

The nation got a fresh example of how unready for prime time the Romney campaign appears to be.

And oh yeah — Clint Eastwood’s Wikipedia page will never be the same.

Image credits: Eastwood, Romney: From RNC pool feed.

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