Speaking up for Romney: Why Eastwood’s speech was not the disaster it seemed
On a humid August’s evening in Tampa Bay, Clint Eastwood, the Hollywood man of few words, spoke at length about America, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the candidate he is supporting in the upcoming presidential election. Eastwood, the surprise 82-year old speaker at the Republican National Convention, was booked for a five minute slot, but elected to increase those minutes to twelve. “Save a little for Mitt” the cadaverous Eastwood instructed his audience, as he took the stage to rapturous applause.
His words fell on deaf ears. A few days on and Eastwood’s speech, which included an interview with an empty chair meant to represent Barack Obama, followed by a mimed throat slicing of the US President, has clocked in over a million views on youtube, while Romney’s lags behind at a paltry 200,000. Qualitative response has been more mixed. Satirist Jon Stewart anticipated widespread Internet ridicule of Eastwood when he redubbed his performance, “The Old Man and the Seat”, and said that it had “hurt these Republicans bad”. But the predominantly derisive responses to Eastwood’s speech may overlook its rousing effect on many putatively Republican-voting Americans, and underestimate its long-term usefulness in the Romney campaign.
Eastwood’s speech had notable shortcomings but it also possessed a rhetorical grandeur that has been so far absent from Mitt Romney’s bid to become president. Additionally, it has acquired a viral following and encouraged more engaged debate as to the Republicans’ odds of winning. After all, any publicity is good publicity – and that is especially true for the Romney campaign, which got off to a slow and blundersome start and is only now gaining momentum given the appointment of the eye-catching Paul Ryan, thinking man’s Soccer Dad, as Vice Presidential candidate.
Eastwood’s speech has been primarily lambasted because it got off to a rather bad start. The invisible Obama sketch was factually inaccurate: Bush, not Obama, sent troops to Afghanistan, and recent Bureau of Labour statistics show that around 12.8 million people, rather than Clint’s estimated 23, are currently unemployed in the US. But the “Obamachair” routine was also, as Roger Ebert has pointed out, comedically inaccurate. The answers that Eastwood conjured for the invisible Obama were marked by dullness and a preoccupation with swearing. This is not how the US president speaks and was poor mimicry on Eastwood’s behalf. As Ebert put it, “both the chair and Eastwood were playing Eastwood”.
More overlooked, however, was the elegance, poignancy and impeccable timing of Eastwood’s closing statement (in rhetorical terminology his peroration – the grandiloquent conclusion to a speech meant to influence the emotions of an audience).
“I’d just like to say something which I think is very important,” Eastwood announced, “You, we – we own this country.”
“It’s important that you realize,” he went on, “that whether you’re a Democrat, or whether you’re a Republican, or whether you’re a Libertarian…you’re the best in the world and we should not, ever, forget that.”
This is the kind of stirringly patriotic soundbite that has eluded Mitt Romney thus far in his campaign. And it was delivered with assiduous rhetorical poise. Eastwood made use of direct address, considerate pausing and personal exhortation, in a moment that oddly recalled Tony Blair’s memorable resignation speech of 2007, in which the Labour PM concluded: “the British are special. The world knows it. In our innermost thoughts, we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth”.
Beyond its patriotism however, Eastwood’s speech was also a useful appeal to the far right voters that Romney has been neglecting since his move to the centre. Eastwood, in fiction and in life the lone cowboy running wild and free of the state, gave a mouthpiece to US frontier mentality. His idiom was colourful, unique and seductively old-fashioned:
“I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: what’s a movie tradesman doing out here? They’re all left wingers – left of Lenin,” Eastwood joked, going on to say, “but that’s not really the case… it’s just that Conservative people, by the nature of the word itself, play it a little more close to the vest and they don’t go around hotdogging it [like Hollywood’s Democrats].”
This is a style of speech unavailable to the sickly and anodyne Romney, who – since babbling senselessly about his love of cars, trees and lakes, and misnaming Paul Ryan “the next President of the United States” – has retired into a bland and carefully scripted public persona. Eastwood’s performance, though coarse and at times incoherent, in some way compensated for Romney’s past crimes of inarticulacy and charisma deficiency. Indeed, eye witness reports from the evening and wider Republican reaction to Eastwood’s speech have been largely positive:
“I saw the audience get very silent, and it was telling that an actor commanded more attention than other people of more substance,” said Jim Stoltenberg of Texas. “Some in the audience talked over important speakers, but when Clint came on, they quieted down like they were in church, even the drunks in the hallway.”
Romney still has a long way to go on the campaigning trail, and much to learn in the art of charming votes out of a live audience. He may wish to begin by taking a few pointers from Clint.Tagged in: Barrack Obama, Clint Eastwood, Mitt Romney, Republican Convention, speech
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