Actor Clint Eastwood speaks to an empty chair while addressing delegates during the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
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NEW YORK — In the aftermath of Clint Eastwood’s perplexing and ridiculed “invisible Obama” monologue at the Republican National Convention, conservative blogger Moe Lane summed up what many on both sides of the political divide are thinking.
“The term ‘surfing on the edge of the catastrophe curve’ comes to mind,” Lane wrote at RedState, concluding the bit that had the 82-year-old Hollywood icon talking to an empty chair did work but, “I would not recommend that the GOP make it a habit.”
Celebrities have courted politicians, and vice versa, since the dawn of Hollywood, but what happens when the alliance backfires, when the two worlds are suddenly speaking different languages?
The crowd Thursday night at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, just ahead of Romney’s “speech of a lifetime,” greeted the Eastwood Moment with hearty laughter and applause, a welcome break of levity on the last day of a tightly choreographed convention.
But behind the scenes, Romney’s campaign staff didn’t find it so humorous. Asked about it immediately after the convention concluded, a half-dozen staffers said little. The campaign quickly went into damage control.
Unlike every other convention speaker, the teleprompter in the hall wasn’t used during Eastwood’s speech, which had him lampooning President Barack Obama as if he were there. The routine from the Oscar-winning director of “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby” lasted twice as long as scheduled, cutting into the hour of prime time coverage for Republicans.
It also sucked up Friday morning coverage of Romney’s speech that had him accepting the Republican nomination for president.
On “CBS This Morning,” Ann Romney cast about for words. Asked whether his contribution was a distraction or a mistake, she responded: “He’s a unique guy and he did a unique thing last night.” But the wife of the new nominee was quick to add that “we’re grateful for everyone’s support and especially grateful for what a great night it was last night.”
Grateful, too, like plenty of politicians, for any financial support that comes along with celebrity pals, though Eastwood’s bucks may not be in the mix.
Eastwood endorsed Romney on Aug. 3, in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he attended a fundraiser, so any money he would have contributed personally or through his company hasn’t turned up yet in financial records filed with the Federal Election Commission. After the fundraiser, Eastwood let the campaign know he was interested in participating in the convention, a Romney aide said.
In this world of oversharing, when the like-minded or contrary are only a tweet away, social media blew up over Eastwood’s confusing convention appearance, along with political-pundit quarterbacking on both ends of the spectrum.
“It ... was odd. Not consistently terrible as some argued,” observed National Review’s Jim Geraghty. “I have no doubt some folks loved it. It may very well have actually moved some votes. But boy, did it get weird at times.”
What of the visible president? Was he watching, and taking notes on how to manage his crowded stable of actors and artists among friends and supporters?
White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama had no observations on Eastwood’s appearance. Nor did he watch the Republican convention, the spokesman said, but his official feed on Twitter — (hashtag)BarackObama — most certainly did.
“This seat’s taken,” the account tweeted late Thursday as Twitter exploded with mockers — and some supporters.
Discomfort or mere awkwardness aside, it’s rare for a celebrity endorsement to backfire in a big way, said Steve Ross, a professor of history at the University of Southern California who has studied the impact of star endorsements in political campaigns.
While some stars, such as Jane Fonda, have proven toxic (she went to North Vietnam during the war in 1972), Eastwood carries enough gravitas and respect that he will get more people to pay attention to Mitt Romney, Ross said.
Eastwood is no Jane Fonda.
In 1986, a Missouri Senate candidate was pilloried for the simple acceptance of $2,000 from the actress. The candidate, the now-dead Harriet Woods, was branded “Hanoi Harriet,” linking her to Fonda’s “Hanoi Jane” moniker, and she lost the election, Ross said.
Nor is Eastwood a regular contributor of political punditry or skewering standup routines.
“This isn’t Jeff Foxworthy. This isn’t some comedian,” Ross said. Eastwood is “Mr. Law and Order. I can’t think of a bigger national spokesperson they could get.”
Yet free-wheeling celebrities do bring their risks:
— Though far from a catastrophe, during a stop at an Obama fundraiser in March, Robert De Niro found himself at the center of a White House apology over a joke about candidates’ wives.
“’Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?’ De Niro asked the crowd, according to a White House pool report.
Gingrich howled. The White House apologized, and so did the actor.
— George Clooney, the Hollywood darling of the Obama administration, got arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington that same month, but he did manage to suck up plenty of limelight after traveling to the troubled region himself and testifying before the Senate.
— In 2008, Scarlett Johansson got a little close for Obama’s comfort. She claimed publicly that she had his ear in regular personal email exchanges after she endorsed him. Not so, the embarrassed candidate had to explain. There had been one email, forwarded by an aide.
— It was an “Oprahpalooza” during primary season in 2007. The talk show queen endorsed Obama and stumped in Iowa before thousands, detracting hugely from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s two surrogates, mom Dorothy Rodham and daughter, Chelsea, both appearing publicly for the first time. The reluctant Chelsea Clinton’s emergence would otherwise have been big news.
Linking celebrities to candidates was a process that started in the late ‘20s, when movie stars were sent on the road to stump with politicians, Ross said. The idea was to draw in more people — many of whom would leave after seeing the star but others who would stay and listen to the candidate’s message.
Capitalizing on celebrity culture to capture new votes, especially among the undecided, was the value, he said.
“This has been the key idea whether it was 1928 or 2012 with Clint Eastwood,” Ross said.