By now, you’ve probably already seen or heard about Clint Eastwood’s riveting, surreal address to the Republican National Convention (if you haven’t, here’s a highlight reel and here’s the full thing), ably discussed by Mychal. The easiest way to understand what happened is, in Mike Grunwald’s words, simply that “a rambling old dude with no teleprompter” acted like, well, a rambling old dude with no teleprompter.
But simply dismissing Eastwood’s performance as rambling insanity misses a crucial part of the speech: it was entertaining as all hell. Eastwood’s diatribe about Invisible Obama telling Romney to perform an anatomically impossible act on himself was met with riotous laughter from the delegates, as were most of his jokes. Even his politically importunate lines, like his poke at the futility of the War in Afghanistan, were well-received by the crowd. The speech was terrible politics, sure, but it was a funny stand-up routine — and that’s how the audience appeared to receive it.
One way to see Eastwood’s routine, then, isn’t that he bombed. It’s that he was doing he was doing the wrong kind of performance on the wrong kind of stage. In a certain sense, that shouldn’t be surprising. Though Eastwood isn’t shy about expressing his political views, and was once mayor of a small town in California, he isn’t a politician. First and foremost, Clint Eastwood is an artist and an entertainer. And the two types approach public performance in very different ways.
The qualities that make effective art are the opposites of the ones that make a good campaign spectacle. Art, even (or especially) when it’s political, succeeds by simultaneously entertaining the audience and opening up new avenues for thought. Art that attempts to lecture at you generally fails as art because it forgets what it’s best at doing. Campaign events, by contrast, are about selling one particular narrative as persuasively as possible. You’re supposed to come away from a campaign event or convention convinced that a particular candidate is Best For America, inspired to work for their campaign. It’s about getting you on a team, not getting you to laugh or think. Even humor deployed in a campaign event is carefully crafted to serve the event’s overall message rather than be comedy qua comedy. Political spectacle, while perhaps an art form, isn’t art.
So when the Romney campaign simply just told Eastwood to go talk (which is basically what happened), it was eminently predictable that he wasn’t going to give a campaign speech even if the scale of this particular meltdown was unimaginable. Eastwood has a history of making riveting, somewhat offensive political art; Gran Torino and its racist, cantankerous Jesus-protagonist being only the most recent and best example. When you throw someone with that sort of artistic sensibility in front of an enormous audience without a script or much advance planning, it’s utter folly to expect them to stay “on-message.” Clint Eastwood is a performer. He performed.