Reeling from a prolonged and vicious leadership battle, a delayed convention start, an impending hurricane, a divided party, a diffuse agenda, and a delightful smorgasbord of high-profile gaffes, the GOP was counting on Mitt Romney this week to deliver “The Speech of a Lifetime” to salvage what was supposed to have been an easy campaign. The bad news is that Romney delivered an embarrassing farrago of cliches, over-rehearsed and served up vomit-warm. The good news is that Romney’s splendid imitation of a small town Chamber of Commerce Chair was immediately, completely and mercifully expunged from popular consciousness by the spectacle of an aging film director talking to an empty chair.
Poor Clint Eastwood is being pilloried by the Left AND the Right for his unique presentation, which has been variously attributed to Mr. Eastwood’s age, his puckish sense of humour, or the possibility that he was accidentally reading from a half-edited shooting script for a new Ben Stiller comedy. Others, less kindly, have suggested that, for a party whose leadership despises knowledge and education, debating a non-existent opponent is the only assurance of victory in an argument.
Ingenious though they may be, such interpretations ignore the central fact that Mr. Eastwood is, first and foremost, an artist. This performance must therefore be viewed as a work within the context of his complete oeuvre.
The anonymous Republican genius who invited Mr. Eastwood to address the convention (and whose body will be found, bound and headless in the Florida everglades one of these years) was no doubt expecting the conservative icon of the 1970s, in the spirit of great showbiz Republicans like John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Ted Nugent and Britney Spears. Eastwood, however, is a bona fide artist and a thoughtful director who, for the last fifteen years, has been methodically returning to his first film themes and systematically repudiating them. Most famously, “Unforgiven” dismantled and mocked the romance of the “man with no name” lone gunslinger persona - an impasto Western to set against the pasta variety. “Mystic River” flipped the gleeful vigilantism of Harry Callahan on its head, “Letters from Iwo Jima” rebuts the jingoism of a whole generation of war films in asserting the humanity of the enemy, “Million Dollar Baby” scored an anti-Republican twofer of gender equity and the right to die with dignity. Eastwood was an odd choice, but iconography is a tricky thing: I expect the same anonymous Republican genius would have invited Bruce Springsteen to perform “Born in the USA” at a Ronald Reagan rally.
One must assume that Eastwood undertook this assignment with the brisk professionalism for which he is renowned in the industry, and that he approached it as a artist, and not, like Paul Ryan, as a cheerleader. And in that light, suddenly the “meaning” of his performance becomes perfectly clear.
The imaginary America inhabited by most of the folks attending the RNC does not exist. There are no swarms of Shariah-loving Muslim masses building bombs in basements and waiting to subvert Christianity. The “mega mosque at ground zero” is a recreation centre blocks away. The economy is recovering. The wars are ending. There are no detention camps, no massed seizure of weapons.
And the Obama that the Republicans are campaigning against does not exist: there IS no Kenyan, Muslim Communist in the White House.
Viewed in that light, Eastwood’s apparently confused, unfocused presentation wasn’t dementia or bad judgment. It was a tight, inspired theatrical monologue, deftly summarizing the state of Republican politics today, and a brilliant preview of the months to come; a rich, old white guy haranguing an invisible and nonexistent enemy before an audience of confused but adoring fools.