Empty Chair Makes Clint’s Day

Clint Eastwood

Film Friday

So Clint Eastwood had a rambling debate with a chair last night at the Republican National Convention and, as blogger Steven Benen opined, the chair won.

Eastwood wanted us to think that he was arguing with the president, but it felt as though we were watching a Samuel Beckett play. (One horrified organized called it “Theater of the Absurd.”) Either that or an acting workshop. The best response to the episode—one that I think goes pretty deep—is that of Jamelle Bouie: “This is a perfect representation of the campaign: an old white man arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama.”

In the 1970s, Clint Eastwood galvanized those shocked by the social upheavals of the 1960s with his Dirty Harry portrayal. Back then, he could look symbolic versions of those taking America down straight in the eyes and ask, “Are you feeling lucky, punk?” If the guy forced Dirty Harry to shoot him, well, that would just “make my day.”

Ronald Reagan tapped into this reactionary anger to sail into the White House and set the tone for the Republican Party for the next thirty plus years. “Make my day,” he said when imagining a Soviet missile attack on the United States. Of course, the resentment of white working class Reagan Democrats was fed by stagnating wages as the country failed to respond forcefully to the globalization, outsourcing, and increased mechanization that devastated the manufacturing sector. It was easy to blame minorities for the economic pain.

That resentment helped George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988 (remember the shameless Willie Horton ads), but it was beginning to lose some of its force. Even Clint Eastwood started mellowing. I’ve written about how I see his film Gran Torino as his apology for the unambiguous embrace of vigilantism in the Dirty Harry movies.

The Romney campaign appears to be turning to the old magic once again with its trumped up charges that Obama wants to “strip” Medicare away from seniors and give it to “them” and that he’s trying to gut “work for welfare” rules. That’s probably why the organizers thought it was a good idea to enlist Clint Eastwood’s services. But the demographics, as South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham has noted, may work against Romney—or at least future Republicans. Graham notes, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long-term.”

So in that regard, Clint Eastwood’s debates with “invisible Obama” might, as Benen says, sum up this convention better than any other image: an aging icon is fighting past battles with an imaginary enemy as the world moves on.

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