Spin Cycle

08.31.12

Romney Camp Defends Eastwood

They dismiss the negative reviews as so much media carping

Mitt Romney’s campaign insists it isn’t concerned about the way that Clint Eastwood hijacked the final hour of the Republican convention with a bizarre empty-chair routine that is being widely panned by the media.

“We know it played well in the hall,” Stuart Stevens, the candidate’s top strategist, told me Friday. “I think it played well in the living room. We’re not really concerned about how it played in the green room.”

Romney aides say privately that they did not know what Eastwood was planning to do when he launched into a rambling, sometimes incoherent dialogue with an imaginary President Obama--including the suggestion that Obama had told Romney to perform an anatomically impossible act on himself.

“He just decided to do this,” one said. “He’s an actor. It was improv. He doesn’t like to work off teleprompters. He’s been great before.”

While many in the Tampa arena indeed laughed at the routine on Thursday night, others looked puzzled or stupefied as it dragged on. This immediately triggered questions about who in the Romney high command had approved such an approach. The answer—amazingly enough at such a choreographed convention—appears to be no one.

Eastwood had performed well for the campaign at two Sun Valley fundraisers, Romney aides say. They gave him message points and expected a replay in Tampa—not a strained and halting comedy routine.

“Does it matter?” the unnamed adviser asked. “It’s just some post-Oscar show critique.”

Eastwood's cringe-inducing performance was more than a boneheaded move. The actor's deeply weird interlude came close to negating a solid if unspectacular performance by the Republican nominee for president.

The actor's bizarre interlude essentially negated a solid if unspectacular performance by the Republican nominee for president.

Eastwood, quite simply, made the Democrats' day.

michael-moore-clint-eastwood-rnc-embed-tease
Actor Clint Eastwood speaks during the final day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 30, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

How can I attribute such overriding importance to an ill-fated bit of entertainment?

Easy. All it requires is a basic knowledge of media behavior and human nature.

In fact, it's not too much to say that what happened in Tampa will be remembered as the Clint Eastwood convention, and the Tropical Storm Isaac convention.

The difference is that one of them was a man-made disaster.

By debating an empty chair that he pretended was President Obama--riffing through a series of strained jokes without a teleprompter--Eastwood ensured that at least half the chatter on Friday morning would be about him, not Romney. But by the weekend, that figure will rise to about 98 percent. And by Monday, Romney's acceptance speech will be largely forgotten.

For the media, Eastwood's Hollywood fame is a mighty magnet, which is precisely the reason the campaign trotted him out as a mystery guest. And journalists weary of a highly scripted convention can hardly be blamed for feasting on an episode that veered so badly off script.

As for ordinary folks, water-cooler talk tends to revolve around a memorable line or telling anecdote. Romney, with his policy-laden indictment of Obama's tenure, conspicuously failed to deliver a highly personal moment or even a catchy sound bite.

Eastwood, who was supposed to be the warmup act for Marco Rubio introducing Romney, wound up with marquee billing. Dirty Harry shot his way into the center ring.

The Romney camp is undoubtedly right that some partisans thought Eastwood was funny and believe the MSM should lighten up. But the media set the narrative, and within seconds on Twitter, where an InvisibleObama account popped up, Eastwood's reviews were about as positive as those for Howard Dean's scream.

It takes great talent to upstage a man accepting his party's presidential nomination. Clint Eastwood was equal to the task.