Thursday evening, just before the final night of the Republican convention got underway, the editor in chief of the conservative Iowa Republican website tweeted, “Obama campaign sending Ashley Judd and Ben McKenzie to Iowa to campaign. You know tts [sic] bad when you have to get actors to campaign for you.”
A few hours later, Clint Eastwood took to the stage in Tampa and gave us a striking piece of surrealist improvisatory theater. First, he offered this rousing endorsement for Romney: “I think possibly now it may be time for somebody else to come along and solve the problem.”
Then, turning to an empty chair meant to symbolize the president, he castigated invisible Barack Obama for not pulling all the troops out of Afghanistan, saying, “We didn't check with the Russians to see how they did it—they were there for 10 years.” Perhaps unaware that Romney has a law degree, he argued that lawyers shouldn’t be president because attorneys are “taught to argue everything, and always weigh everything—weigh both sides. They are always devil's advocating this and bifurcating this and bifurcating that.” He criticized Obama for riding in a “big gas guzzler” of a plane before an audience that treats climate change as a laugh line. Several times, he pretended that invisible Obama had told him to go fuck himself.
The American Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie described the spectacle better than anyone. “This is a perfect representation of the campaign: an old white man arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama,” he tweeted.
Republicans seem to be worried that Eastwood’s halting and surreal performance would overshadow Romney’s speech, which, despite the spin, was serviceable at best. If it did, they have only themselves to blame, because despite all their digs at Hollywood, the Republican Party is pitifully in the thrall of celebrity.
Conservatives like to pretend that, unlike liberals, they’re above the shallow charms of Hollywood. But whenever a remotely famous person identifies as conservative, the GOP swoons, whatever the star’s personal history. (Sondra Locke, who was Eastwood’s partner for more than a decade, famously claimed that he pressured her into two abortions and then a sterilization.) This is, after all, the party of Ronald Reagan. It’s the party that made Eastwood the mayor of Carmel and Arnold Schwarzenegger the governor of California. Before Hurricane Isaac shortened the convention, it was planning on giving a speaking role to reality-TV troll Donald Trump, who briefly led the primary polls. Al Franken aside, performers have much better luck as Republicans than as Democrats.
But there’s pathos in the party’s love of entertainers, because so few entertainers love it back. Indeed, that’s why conservatives are so quick to embrace simpatico celebrities—deep down, they seem tormented by jealousy over the Democrats’ famous friends. They’re desperate to bask in star power, but the only available wattage is comparatively dim. It was Fox News, remember, that invited Kim Kardashian to the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
The other two big stars at this year’s convention were Jon Voight who got a shout-out from Eastwood, and Victoria Jackson. Voight is a rather volatile person who got furious at me during a Beast TV interview, calling me “Shorty” and insisting that no one could understand Obama’s devious plans for America without seeing Dinesh D'Souza’s 2016. (He later apologized to my colleagues for being “mean to that girl.”) Former Saturday Night Live actress Victoria Jackson, known for playing ditzes onscreen, has a similar persona in real life; swanning around the convention, she prevailed on a male friend of mine to show her how to rename a file on her computer.
And so, even though Eastwood launched a million memes last night—by 12:30 a.m., @invisibleobama had more than 30,000 Twitter followers—he was still probably the GOP’s best bet for a celebrity endorser. Perhaps they simply should have done without an actor onstage, but they’re Republicans, and they can’t resist.