TAMPA, Fla. — The idea must have seemed sure-fire when Mitt Romney’s advisors hatched it: Highlight the final night of the Republican National Convention with a surprise appearance by that long, tall drink of gritty Americana, Clint Eastwood.
The beloved movie star and filmmaker surely would confer some of his abundant credibility on the Republican presidential nominee, still trying after six years of running for the White House to persuade some voters of his authenticity.
Eastwood would then flee into the swampy Florida night and Romney would launch his acceptance speech. Instead, Eastwood’s 12-minute rhetorical ramble — featuring his conversation with an empty chair that represented President Obama — became the target of decidedly mixed reviews for the film icon, inspired a social media pile-on and diverted at least some attention from Romney’s nomination acceptance speech on the crowning night of his political career.
Republican Party regulars watched gleefully as Eastwood took the stage at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Thursday night and slammed Obama for the “national disgrace” of allowing 23 million Americans to remain unemployed. He told the chair, “When somebody does not do the job, we got to let them go.” He suggested Vice President Joe Biden amounted to nothing more than “a grin with a body behind it.”
Talk radio star Rush Limbaugh said Friday he “loved” the shtick, certain that it had gotten “under Obama’s skin.” A lot of other conservatives said they felt that way too.
If Obama was sweating, he tried not to let it show. He tweeted out a photo of himself sitting in a chair marked “The President,” with the text: “This seat’s taken.”
Top Romney campaign strategist Stuart Stevens insisted that the Eastwood “improv” (the staff thought he would sit in the chair, not use it as a prop) was not a problem and that Romney laughed at it as he waited in the wings to make his acceptance speech.
But that did not appear to be the sentiment from at least some of Team Romney, with advisors the day after the close of the convention shifting the conversation to anything but their Hollywood pitchman.
And, on the network morning television shows, Romney’s wife, Ann, sounded less than thrilled with the Eastwood performance.
She told ABC’s “Good Morning America” she was “grateful for his support” but quickly shifted to much more effusive praise of Olympic athletes and Mormon church friends who had addressed the convention earlier in the evening.
She also quickly segued away from Eastwood’s bit when speaking with “CBS This Morning.” “You can never take away from the fact that this country is in trouble” she said, “and people are looking for real leadership and that I know that Mitt is the man for this moment.”
A Romney campaign official, who asked not to be named in order to discuss internal planning, said Eastwood had gone on for about twice as long as expected. Although staffers had seen some of the actor’s notes before he took the stage, they didn’t have any control over the message.
“You don’t edit Clint Eastwood,” the official said.
A rising GOP star, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he “cringed” at the Eastwood appearance, which implied a couple of off-color references by the imaginary Obama. Walker said he would have preferred to see prime-time appearances by the Romney family friends who made emotional speeches during the lightly televised portion of the program before 10 p.m. EDT.
Other fans of Eastwood were not as kind.
“Clint, my hero, is coming across as sad and pathetic,” tweeted film critic Roger Ebert. “He didn’t need to do this to himself. It’s unworthy of him.”
Republican political consultant Mike Murphy tweeted that he was “dying” to read a full account of how the “Clint train wreck actually happened. Incredible.” Murphy on Friday added: “Some senior Romney genius (amazingly) didn’t know a basic showbiz rule dating back beyond the Ed Sullivan show: Always clear the material.”
A representative of Eastwood’s production company said he was not granting any interviews Friday. But his longtime agent, Leonard Hirshan, said most of the calls he had received were from Republicans who liked the empty-chair riff.
As with any self-respecting 21st-century pop culture phenomenon, the Eastwood moment quickly developed its own social media afterlife.
One wag created a Twitter handle, @InvisibleObama, for the unseen chief executive. It had more than 52,000 followers by Friday afternoon. Social networks teemed with photos of “Eastwooding,” people (and even pets) gesturing to empty chairs.
Comedians considered what the party in power would have to do next week at the Democratic National Convention to top Eastwooding. “To restore balance to the universe,” said Patton Oswalt, “Obama must have Tommy Chong onstage at the DNC, talking to a steak.” Seth Myers of “Saturday Night Live” offered another option: "[Vice President Joe] Biden has to go shirtless for DNC to top it.”
Times staff writers Maeve Reston and Rebecca Keegan contributed to this report.