Clint Eastwood talks politics: Who’s the Democrat he voted for?


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Clint Eastwood is such a passionate fiscal conservative that when he married his second wife, Dina Ruiz, in 1996, he included her finances in his own personal deficit-reduction campaign. “My wedding present to her was paying off her credit cards,” he told me the other day, using his bungalow on the Warner Bros. lot as a staging area for interviews touting “J. Edgar,” his new film about longtime FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. When I asked if he’d made any similar offers as, well, an anniversary gift, Eastwood said with a laugh, “No, I told her it was a one-time deal.”

Showbiz has its clear partisans — Sean Penn, Barbra Streisand and George Clooney are ardent liberals; Kelsey Grammer, Tom Selleck and Jerry Bruckheimer are true conservatives. But the right and the left both like to claim the 81-year-old Eastwood as one of their own. When I quizzed Eastwood, he couldn’t remember ever voting for a Democrat for president — including in the last election, where he supported John McCain. But when he condemned anti-gay marriage fanatics in a recent, profanity-studded GQ interview (“Don’t give me that sanctity crap! Just give everybody the chance to have the life they want”), my liberal friends shared the excerpts on Facebook with pretty much the same delight as 12-year-old girls passing around Justin Bieber videos.


When it comes to his films’ depiction of sensitive issues, Eastwood has carried off an astounding balancing act. Look at his back-to-back movies about World War II: The first, “Flags of Our Fathers,” was openly admiring of American exceptionalism; the next, “Letters From Iwo Jima,” venerated the courage and sacrifices made by Japanese soldiers in one of the war’s bloodiest battles.

“J. Edgar” won’t satisfy Hoover haters or supporters. The first half of the movie portrays him as an energetic crusader who modernized crime fighting, with fingerprints and scientific evidence analysis. But in the second half, Hoover turns into a headline-hogging zealot, snooping into private lives of suspected Communists or people Hoover simply saw as threats to his power, including a number of sitting presidents.

Having promoted dozens of films, Eastwood is shrewd enough to tread carefully, not wanting to rub any potential moviegoers the wrong way. “Hoover was a patriot in his heart, but he definitely exceeded his power,” he said in his soft, sandpaper-like voice. “Whether he helped the country remains to be seen.” In other words, draw your own conclusions.

Eastwood was far more open about his own politics. Having started voting for GOP presidential contenders in 1952 with Dwight Eisenhower, Eastwood said he was tempted to break ranks only once — in 1992, for Ross Perot. “I liked him,” Eastwood said. “I guess because I like rebels.”

The only Democrat he can remember voting for is Gray Davis when he was elected governor of California in 1998. Yet Eastwood is also a big admirer of the current governor, Jerry Brown, and what Eastwood likes about Brown is revealing. He sees him as a kindred spirit, a free-thinking libertarian willing to take unpopular or unorthodox positions on key issues. Eastwood says he contributed to Brown’s campaign to establish several charter schools in Oakland when Brown was mayor there, seeing them as an important example of new thinking on education.

“I’ve always been very liberal when it comes to people thinking for themselves,” said Eastwood, who supports gay marriage, abortion rights and environmental protection. “But I’m a big hawk on cutting the deficit. I was against the stimulus thing too. We shouldn’t be bailing out the banks and car companies. If a CEO can’t figure out how to make his company profitable, then he shouldn’t be the CEO.”


When it comes to the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, if Eastwood is enthusiastic about anyone, it’s Herman Cain. “I love Cain’s story,” he says. “He’s a guy who came from nowhere and did well, obviously against heavy odds. He’s a doer and a straight-talker, which I don’t see enough of from either party.”

He’s not as bullish on Mitt Romney. As a film icon, Eastwood has been fiercely protective of his image, but he’s not especially enamored by that attitude in a politician. When Eastwood was in Massachusetts in 2002, filming “Mystic River,” Romney was running for governor there. “I saw a lot of him and you have to admit — he looks like a president,” Eastwood recalled with a tone that you’d have to describe as being slyly sarcastic. “I mean, if you were casting a movie where you needed someone to play president, you’d definitely pick him.”

He sounded equally skeptical about Rick Perry. When I suggested that Perry, as a rugged, gun-toting Texan, would probably crave a photo op with Eastwood even more than with Donald Trump, Eastwood said with a shrug, “If he wanted to meet me, he might be a little disappointed.”

I’m here to testify that it’s awfully difficult to be disappointed when you meet Eastwood. He has a self-deprecating charm that wears well, even if you’re on the other side of the political spectrum. When I push back at his criticism of the auto company bailout, he flashes one of his trademark Eastwood squints, the kind of squint that has made hundreds of bad guys quake in their boots.

“Look at me,” he said evenly. “I’ve had to make films for less money or go out and find my own money. On ‘Mystic River,’ I had to cut my salary and everyone else’s to get it made. I know the score. If I start to grind out two or three turkeys, I’ll be unemployed, just like anyone else.”

Hollywood may be a town of la-la-liberals, but when it comes to individual careers, it’s a business with a nakedly conservative embrace of free-market principles. The hit makers are the toast of the town. The flopmeisters can’t get anyone to return their calls. Eastwood had his biggest hit ever as a filmmaker with 2008’s “Gran Torino.” But his last two films, “Invictus” and “Hereafter,” were disappointments. So if “J. Edgar” is a stiff, Eastwood will be skating on thin ice.

Whatever happens, he isn’t expecting any handouts. When times are hard, he says, “People are forced to figure things out — it makes you more creative at what you do.” Even though he was talking about Wall Street bailouts, he was also talking about himself. When you’re in Clint Eastwood country, it’s the strong who survive.


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-- Patrick Goldstein