Much ponderous, chin-stroking analysis has followed the Republican National Convention’s un-highlight — the 10-minute monologue by the erstwhile Dirty Harry/Blondie/Rowdy Yates when Clint Eastwood conversed with an empty chair.
What could it mean? Who allowed him to do that? What in the world were Republicans thinking?
And then The Thoughtful Ones commenced: What a waste of network time, a distraction from Mitt Romney’s moment. A faux narrative that keeps facts at bay and silliness front and center. It was disrespectful to the president. This is what it’s come to . . . .
Oh, do drench thy couch with tears.
Confession: As I watched Eastwood from a seat in the convention center in Tampa, I thought: Hmmmm. What is this? Is it funny? Is it sad? Did he really say, “I can’t tell [Romney] to do that. He can’t do that to himself.”
Strange as it was, the overwhelming mood was, oh, well, it’s Clint Eastwood. Let him be Clint! But who knew Clint was a comedian?
Several days later, as the harrumphing subsides and the American zeitgeist has its way, it turns out that Eastwood was brilliant in a Garry Trudeau-ian way.
Just as “Doonesbury” creator Trudeau gave readers simple symbols by which to imagine and mock political figures — Dan Quayle’s feather; George W. Bush’s asterisk; George H.W. Bush’s point of light — Eastwood gave Republicans a near-perfect metaphor for their nemesis.
For GOPers, Barack Obama was always an empty suit, but a suit on a hanger would have been logistically problematic for Eastwood, who apparently asked for the chair at the last minute. Was he planning this all along and knew he’d have to fool his handlers in order to pull off his own private joke?
Eastwood isn’t saying. He’s had his fun and no doubt is enjoying the hand-wringing in his wake. Unscripted, unchecked and, at age 82, not much concerned with aftermaths, Eastwood essentially goofed on everyone, amusing himself at the president’s expense.
Before pundits had a chance to organize their outrage, The Empty Chair had become an Internet sensation with a Twitter account. Less than a week later, it has had its own day. While Democrats were partying on Labor Day in Charlotte, Republicans were celebrating National Empty Chair Day by posting pictures of empty chairs. Among the primary instigators are bloggers.
It’s a fair wager that the Empty Chair will be around for a while.
Eastwood’s prank, though scorned by Democrats, those pillars of decorum, is now being embraced by the other side. Suggestions abound for comparable comebacks, including one involving Betty White and a toilet. Fill in your own one-liner, keeping in mind that elderly people can get away with saying anything. Apparently.
The empty chair even found its way to Charlotte on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, where it made an appearance during a speech by Lee Saunders, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. After ignoring the chair during most of his speech to Wisconsin’s delegates (he made similar remarks to Ohio’s delegates), Saunders said, “I don’t know if you noticed, but you see this chair? . . . He’s been listening to everything I had to say. So I want you to welcome Clint Eastwood.
“I’ve got a couple of questions . . . I want to ask Clint Eastwood. But first, buddy, what do you have to say for yourself? I didn’t hear you. . . . Clint’s been sitting here for the past hour. He doesn’t have anything to say for himself. Mitt Romney has nothing to say for himself. Paul Ryan has nothing to say for himself. We’ve got to make our voices heard. . . . If we do that, we will win in November. So I say to you, Dirty Harry: ‘Dirty Harry, make my day!’ ”
Whereupon Saunders knocked the empty chair off the stage. The ensuing thud was commentary. As they say, it isn’t so much the joke; it’s how you tell it.
All complaints about silliness and disrespect, meanwhile, will be drowned out by the deafening smirk of our nation’s unruly, irreverent crowd. More than any people on the planet, Americans love a good joke. We are iconoclasts at heart and any pretender to righteousness will be slain not by the bully but by the barb. The person who takes himself too seriously tosses an empty chair off the stage. The man who couldn’t care less chats with no one and rides off into the sunset.
In America’s most durable narrative, the cowboy always wins.
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