The long political history of debating empty chairs

August 31, 2012

Most political observers -- or, any observer, really -- found Clint Eastwood's speech Thursday night really, really weird. Rachel Maddow was rendered speechless before describing it as "the weirdest thing I've ever seen at a political convention in my entire life, and it will be the weirdest thing I've ever seen if I live to be 100."

It was weird, but it certainly was not unprecedented. Smithsonian Magazine does some digging and finds that there's actually a decent amount of empty-chair debates in American political history. It stretches back to at least 1924, when progressive party vice-presidential nominee Burton K. Wheeler "took a stab at an invisible President Calvin Coolidge." Here is how Wheeler recounted that debate in his autobiography:

In Des Moines, I hit on an original showmanship gimmick. The hall was jammed to the rafters… I said, “You people have a right to know how a candidate for President stands on issues, and so far President Coolidge has not told you where he stands on anything… so I am going to call him before you tonight and ask him to take this chair and tell me where he stands.” People in the auditorium began to crane their necks to see if Coolidge really was somewhere on the premises. I pulled a vacant chair and addressed it as though it had an occupant. “President Coolidge,” I began, “tell us where you stand on Prohibition.” I went on with rhetorical questions in this vein, pausing after each for a short period. Then I wound up: “There, my friends, is the usual silence that emanates from the White House.” The crowd roared in appreciation.

There are more examples in the Smithsonian piece here. We've also got a full transcript of Clint Eastwood's speech, which looks just as confusing on paper as it did in presentation.

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Brad Plumer · August 31, 2012