‘Dirty Harry’ steals the Romney show

Eastwood addresses empty chair

  • Actor-Clint-Eastwood-s-performance

    Actor Clint Eastwood's performance Thursday lit up the social-networking universe the next day.

    Associated Press

  • Actor Clint Eastwood's performance Thursday lit up the social-networking universe the next day.
    Actor Clint Eastwood's performance Thursday lit up the social-networking universe the next day.

    The Iranians were baffled ("Nonsense from Clint Eastwood," said one Facebook poster in Farsi). Twitterers mostly ridiculed it ("I can't believe Clint Eastwood turned into somebody's DRUNK UNCLE HARRY," tweeted Star Jones, a Today show commentator). Mitt Romney's aides scrambled for cover -- "It's improv," manager Stuart Stevens impatiently told reporters who presumably don't know much about comedy.

    The Clint Eastwood endorsement speech Thursday night at the Republican National Convention in Tampa -- 11 rambling, cringeworthy-yet-hilarious minutes talking to an empty chair supposedly representing President Obama -- may have been a hit among the delegates, as Romney staffers pointed out.

    But his comments -- "What do you mean, shut up?" Mr. Eastwood said to an empty chair -- left others scratching their heads.

    For many, Thursday night may represent one of those memorable communal moments on television and in social media, with thousands on #InvisibleObama tweeting about the same shared experience. "Eastwooding" -- gesturing to an empty chair -- has now, it seems, officially become a verb, along the lines of "Tebowing" (praying during a football game) or "Borked" (sinking a Supreme Court nomination).

    On Friday, stand-up comedians -- both aspiring and actual -- were coming out of the woodwork. "I demand to see Invisible Obama's invisible birth certificate," said Michael Schaffer of the New Republic. "Clint Eastwood on the phone with Obama now: 'It all went according to plan, sir,' " tweeted comedian Chris Rock. Bob Newhart, who has performed his own comedy routines with chairs, tweeted, "I heard that Clint Eastwood was channeling me at the RNC. My lawyers and I are drafting our lawsuit."

    David Orr doesn't know what the big deal is.

    "Clint Eastwood is a great American. He was just what we needed," said Mr. Orr, sitting in his sport utility vehicle in front of a Panera cafe and bakery in Wilkins, Pa. Actually, the 73-year-old Altoona resident looked a little bit like the 82-year-old Hollywood superstar himself, lanky and sunburned, squinting under a straw Panama hat emblazoned with "Gaylord Springs Golf Links" on it.

    Actor Clint Eastwood, with a photo projected behind him of one of his characters from a western film, addresses the GOP convention in Tampa.
    Actor Clint Eastwood, with a photo projected behind him of one of his characters from a western film, addresses the GOP convention in Tampa.

    So Mr. Eastwood didn't embarrass himself or hurt Mitt Romney? He didn't come across like Grandpa Abe Simpson instead of Dirty Harry?

    "Nah. That's just Star Jones talking," Mr. Orr said, as his wife nodded in the passenger seat.

    Mr. Orr's favorable review was echoed by Natalie Toews, a nurse at Forbes Regional Hospital who just moved here from northern California.

    "I thought it was very witty," said the 22-year-old Ms. Toews, who described herself as politically conservative and familiar with Mr. Eastwood, onetime mayor of the northern California resort town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. "You know, a lot of people poke fun at presidents. I don't think he hurt himself, and I don't think he hurt Mitt Romney."

    Some who study these kinds of political moments for a living were less forgiving.

    "When he [Mr. Eastwood] stepped out of character last night and tried to be a 21st-century Will Rogers, he was way out of character and clearly out of his area of expertise," said Gerald Shuster, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh who called the performance "painful to watch." He noted that he had just told his Pitt students Thursday that anyone speaking at a political convention, even the most skilled presenter or actor, "needs notes or an outline to keep the presentation focused on the objective, and keep within the time limit. Eastwood adhered to neither, and Romney paid the penalty."

    Whether it's much of a penalty isn't clear. Eastwood dominated the convention aftermath coverage Friday, the media reveling in a welcome diversion from a tightly scripted four-day Republican convention, which will no doubt be repeated next week by the Democrats in Charlotte.

    Mr. Romney's speech got good reviews, as did his campaign's video about him, and staffers insisted that Mr. Romney thought the actor's speech was "funny," but Ann Romney quickly changed the subject when asked about Mr. Eastwood on CBS This Morning on Friday.

    "In the long run, the impact may be minor, but the problem for Romney was that was the takeaway moment of the night, and Eastwood was a distraction," said Seth Masket, assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver.

    "It muffles the message," added Robin Lauermann, associate professor of politics at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., "but it will likely blow over. If it happened a few weeks before the election, that might be a problem, but we're still far from Election Day."

    Clint Eastwood the movie star had no comment on Clint Eastwood the stand-up comic.

    The Oscar-winning director of Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven was traveling, said Leonard Hirshan, a spokesman. His next comments to the press won't come until he's doing promotion for his next movie, The Trouble with the Curve, opening Sept. 21, in which he plays "a broken-down old man," as his character says, a curmudgeonly baseball scout who's going blind.

    "He's busy selling that [movie] and not talking to anybody," Mr. Hirshan said.

    So who should play the Eastwood character at the Democratic National Convention next week? Suggestions ranged from William Shatner to Tommy Chong.

    Or Joe Biden with his shirt off, tweeted Saturday Night Live cast member Seth Myers.

    Stay tuned.

    The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Mackenzie Carpenter is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

    Contact her at: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com, or 412-263-1949.