So What the Heck Happened With Clint Eastwood? (and the Perils of Arguing With Imaginary Obamas)

Actor Clint Eastwood talks to an empty chair during his address to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Thur
Actor Clint Eastwood talks to an empty chair during his address to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

So what the heck really happened with Clint Eastwood at the end of last week's wacky Republican convention?

After watching the spectacle of the veteran Hollywood superstar argue with his non-spectral apparition in that now infamous empty chair on international television, President Barack Obama left the White House early Friday morning to fly to El Paso, Texas. I'm told he was in a good mood. Who could blame him?

Eastwood is a very familiar character here in California. I've met him, can't say I know him, but certainly know friends of his. This episode surprised me on a few levels. In contrast to what many would suppose after his not A-OK speech to the once GOP, he has numerous ties Democratic as well as Republican.

Not so lucky ... "in all this excitement."

Which makes Thursday's appearance, backing the most conservative Republican presidential nominee in a long time, rather curious.

Eastwood was apparently drawn to Romney when he was in Massachusetts directing his classic film Mystic River and Romney was running for his lone term as governor of the Bay State. Which, er, doesn't necessarily explain much, especially after Eastwood did this year's famous Super Bowl ad for Chrysler -- "It's Halftime in America" -- in which Eastwood extols the saving of the American auto industry. Romney, of course, opposed the very plan which saved the auto industry, championed by that invisible guy in the chair.

No less than Karl Rove was outraged by Eastwood's ad, telling Fox News: "I was, frankly, offended by it. It is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising."

(Incidentally, Rove was quite wrong in saying that the Eastwood Super Bowl ad was paid for with taxpayer dollars. The successfully bailed out Chrysler, saved by the very Obama plan Romney opposed, had already paid the government back.)

In any event, for whatever reason he did it, Eastwood showed up at a Romney fundraiser last month in Idaho to deliver an endorsement, thrilling the candidate and his team.

Since Eastwood is an icon who exudes the sort of grounded American masculinity that the elitist Romney so notably lacks, it's easy to see why he would be placed in the prime time program as one of the two presenters of the nominee. What's not so easy to see is how the debacle of Eastwood's presentation happened.

The official word from the Romney camp is that Eastwood, who argued with an empty chair -- making him only the latest among folks of all ideological persuasions to argue with an imaginary Obama, who has governed essentially as advertised in his 2008 campaign policy book, which I keep on my desk -- was ad libbing.

In his Super Bowl ad earlier this year, Clint Eastwood praised the successful rescue of the U.S. auto industry that Mitt Romney opposed.

Well, if so, and that would be one of the biggest ifs you can find, that would be quite extraordinary, to say the least.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger, then merely the sitting governor of California and not a former mayor of Carmel, spoke to the 2004 Republican National Convention, his speech was gone over and over with a fine tooth comb.

In my own observation and experience, no star, no matter how cool or commanding, is given anything near this high profile a platform and simply trusted to make the magic.

Yet in the official scenario, Eastwood went on twice as long as scheduled and went on stage with a chair, supposedly surprising only the prop master who figured he might sit in it. And what of the senior Romney campaign figures you would expect to crowd around Clint off-stage? Crickets.

Stevens, as O'Donnell pointed out, likes Hollywood and has worked in Hollywood. In fact, he worked for O'Donnell on the NBC series Mister Sterling. I worked on the show, too, which is how I got to know Stevens. O'Donnell was a West Wing producer before and after Mister Sterling, a show about a maverick son of a beloved former Democratic governor of California who is appointed to the U.S. Senate and turns out to be an independent (any similarities to Jerry Brown and Pat Brown are entirely coincidental).

Stevens was later media consultant for Republican Steve Poizner in his 2010 Republican primary race, ironically opposing Romney protege Meg Whitman. Poizner, once a moderate ally of Schwarzenegger, ran hard at Whitman from the right, closing a huge gap only to be driven back by a relentlessly negative campaign pointing out the Poizner wasn't the right-winger he made himself out to be and that Whitman was the real conservative. (Which of course helped Jerry Brown in the general election.) I haven't talked to Stevens about the Eastwood matter.

This wouldn't be the first time that a Republican campaign, highly irritated by Obama's hold on much of the electorate, would go for a play that, internally, seems clever and emotionally satisfying but externally, well, not so much. I have talked about that very thing with McCain for President campaign director Steve Schmidt, the former Schwarzenegger campaign manager, writing about it here several times, most recently in the spring in my piece around the Game Change movie.

I felt badly for Eastwood, whom I've admired since I was a kid.

He was a John McCain backer in 2008, which makes more sense to me than Romney. The Vietnam War hero McCain (Romney toughed out the days of the Vietnam War, which he backed vociferously, as a Mormon missionary in, er, France) at least had the background of someone who was willing to go against the partisan grain.

Which Eastwood himself has done in California.

He's friendly with Governor Jerry Brown, endorsed Senator Dianne Feinstein, and was appointed by then Governor Gray Davis to the state Parks & Recreation Commission. He's also a friend of other Democrats, like former San Francisco Mayor and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and former Assemblyman and Coastal Commission chairman Rusty Areias.

Clint Eastwood argued with an imaginary President Barack Obama during his appearance on the last night of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.

None of which marks Eastwood as the likeliest character to show up to make the big pitch for the likes of Romney. Maybe some things just don't make sense. Which sounds like something a character in Eastwood's classic revisionist Western Unforgiven might say, come to think of it. But one thing's clear: A man's got to know his limitations.

And what to say about closing night at the Republican National Convention?

Well, we saw pretty much the same Mitt Romney as always. Notably, he had no specifics on his plan to revive the U.S. economy. He promised to create 12 million jobs, a specific number, but didn't say how that would happen.

So if you don't have faith that doubling down on the last administration's old time religion of tax cuts and regulatory cuts and ramping up the oil industry gets you 12 million new jobs -- and does not further bust the budget -- you are left unsatisfied with it all.

So, despite the distraction, you can't blame Eastwood for the result of the convention, which as the Gallup Poll shows ended with Romney as the first nominee of either party in 40 years to get no bounce, his speech the lowest rated since Bob Dole's.

As I wrote here before Romney spoke, the outcome was always likely to be a replay of the old ad tag line that Don Draper could have written: "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."

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