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Confused, Crass, and Cranky: The Accidental Political Genius of Clint Eastwood

One of the weirder pathologies of campaign reporting is its tendency to bemoan the scripted nature of modern politics, then react with a mix of anger and confusion when someone actually wanders off the script. The responses to Clint Eastwood’s bizarre, rambling monologue—you couldn’t really call it a speech, could you?—in Tampa last night have been representative: Politico has a good roundup of cable news pundit bafflement, and the Times has the requisite next-day recriminations piece. One unnamed Romney advisor quoted in the Times describes the spectacle as “theater of the absurd,” which was certainly how it looked to me at the time (and apparently to Paul Ryan, who has a great please-let-this-end-soon grimace around minute nine).

When I watched it again this afternoon, however, I began to think that I had Eastwood—well, not all wrong, but partly wrong. It’s still a sad, senescent performance, and one of the most queasily fascinating artifacts of recent American political theater. The joke about Obama telling Romney (we can safely infer, I think) to go fuck himself still crosses a line, though in post-“You lie!” America it’s hard to say where exactly that line is anymore. But as a matter of pure politics—this being a convention, after all—was Eastwood really so terrible?

One of the biggest problems for Romney as a political communicator is the fundamental impossibility of translating the free-floating, inchoate animus toward Obama that Republicans need to harness to win this year into a vocabulary that makes sense coming out of the mouth of a crisp, wonkish managerial type. (See the nonsensical “Obama doesn’t understand America” talking point from early this year.) More base-friendly Republicans have mostly succeeded in translating it into varieties of spittle-flecked rage or outright conspiracism, but it’s hard to see this kind of thing coming across much better with the sliver of voters left to win over in the next two months.

But Eastwood’s performance channeled a gentler, less toxic version of that animus. If the speech that Marco Rubio gave before Eastwood took the stage was a stab at Clinton-style political empathy, Eastwood’s was a far less-common—and presumably accidental—exercise in political sympathy. It was method politics, almost. He embodied the people you would meet on the margins of the early Tea Party rallies: usually older, not terribly politically engaged, unclear on what it was that the stimulus or (later) the Affordable Care Act actually did or didn’t do, but possessed of a deep conviction that things were somehow just going wrong. Sure, most of what he said was daft—“Closing Gitmo—why close that? We spent so much money on it”—but that’s sort of the point. Eastwood, for all his fame and wealth, did not seem of a piece with the Olympians and successful entrepreneurs parading across the stage earlier in the evening. He came across more like a surrogate for a cranky, bewildered swath of America—one whom the Republicans venerated last night, and liberals and journalists are tearing to shreds today. In a different venue, you might call it a solid performance.