Below is an exclusive excerpt from “Clint: The Life and Legend,” by Patrick McGilligan (OR Books, 2015).
By late summer 2012 there were rumors that a major celebrity might openly endorse the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, but even though Clint always had supported the G.O.P. (a.k.a. Grand Old Party), and the orchestra could be heard rehearsing the theme to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it was hard to believe the major celebrity was Eastwood until the night of August 29 when he strode out on the convention stage. Regardless of his beliefs, Clint was not known for giving public political speeches in prime time.
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Clint had been flirting with the idea of addressing the Republican assemblage (and the nation) since meeting and liking Romney at a private dinner party with their wives and one other couple at his Tehama Golf Club back in July. Then Clint materialized at a Romney fund-raiser in Sun Valley in early August. When summoned to join Romney in front of the crowd, Clint winged an endorsement that was a first draft of the talking points he would cover just as digressively one month later in Tampa.
“I was doing a picture in the early 2000s called Mystic River in his home state,” Clint told the Sun Valley crowd, “I said, God, this guy is too handsome to be governor, but he does look like he could be president. As the years have gone by, I’m beginning to think even more so that. He’s going to restore a decent tax system that we need badly so that there is a fairness and people are not pitted against one another of who’s paying taxes and who isn’t. Also we don’t want anybody taking away the Olympic medals, taxwise, from the Olympic athletes. The government is talking about getting a couple of nickels. …
“It’s now more important than ever that we need Governor Romney, and I’m going to be voting for him, as I know most of you will be. We’ve got to just spread the word and get the whole country behind this, because it’s going to be an exciting election.”
Romney was thrilled: The presidential contender was an unabashed fan of Clint and his movies. Earlier in 2012, Clint had voiced a Super Bowl advertisement for Chrysler called “Halftime in America,” which stirred almost as much comment as the football contest—with some conservatives seeing the ad as tacitly approving President Obama’s controversial auto bailout. Romney urged Clint to clarify where he stood politically and endorse his candidacy at the Republican convention.
According to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s authoritative Double Down: Game Change 2012, Clint agreed to the convention appearance but insisted on playing it “loose” about what he actually would say; he rejected notes, or a teleprompter. Not all of Romney’s advisors were happy about the prospect; some who had been present at the Sun Valley event thought Clint’s remarks had been “rambling, his offstage behavior erratic,” the Double Down authors wrote. “Romney’s traveling aides were convinced that Clint had had a few pops and flirted with a female finance-team staffer.”
Clint brought a DVD of The Outlaw Josey Wales with him to Tampa, featuring a clip in which the Native American Ten Bears says, “It’s sad that the governments are chiefed by the double-tongues.” They could use that clip as his introduction, Clint said. Romney’s staff demurred.
Romney media advisor Russell Schriefer visited Clint in his Marriott suite in Tampa, trying to encourage the star to reprise the best lines from the Idaho fund-raiser. Clint could mention Mystic River again, and say something like: “Last time you heard from me, it was halftime in America. Now we’re at the two-minute warning. We need Mitt Romney.” According to Double Down, “Eastwood nodded and said little.”
Now the packed convention hall and millions of U.S. and world citizens in the televised audience awaited his speech—along with Romney and his advisors. A huge poster of Clint from Outlaw Josey Wales flashed behind the star: guns militantly splayed across his chest. Clint himself was dressed in a gunmetal blue suit with a thin-striped light cerulean tie. The relaxed and smiling octogenarian stood in contrast to the huge image of the younger iconic mean-faced Clint. His hair was frizzy white these days, like snow on the Eiger slope of his brow; furrows streaked his jaw.
The staging included an inspired prop that confused viewers and television commentators at first. It was an empty chair-stool perched next to the podium. According to Double Down, as Clint waited to go on stage, up in his Marriott suite, he tuned into an oldies radio station and listened to Neil Diamond’s song “I Am … I Said,” with its lyric, “I am, I said, to no one there. And no one heard at all, not even the chair.” What a dumb line, Clint thought, talking to an inanimate object!
Ninety minutes later, secreted in a holding room off stage as he waited to be introduced, Clint rejected the offer of face powder. “I want to shine,” the actor explained. Listening to others praise Romney from the podium, he decided he didn’t want to be the tenth guy on the program repeating the same cliches as the others. Eastwood wanted to try something different. “Do you have a stool?” Clint asked a stagehand. “Could you put it onstage before I go out? Just to the left of the podium? Thanks.”
Once he took the stage and after the huge roar of the crowd settled down, Clint started talking, addressing the large audience (auditorium and television) but also (shifting his glance) the chair. What was up with that? Who was Clint talking to? “I’ve got Mr. Obama here,” Eastwood explained, “I was going to ask him some questions …”
Sitting on the chair was President Obama—an “invisible man.” Clint played it loose and humorous—grin flashing—though there was a stammer and quaver in his voice as he appeared to fumble for the words inside his head.
Working without a script was rare in Eastwood’s career, but back in the long-ago days when he was a struggling young actor in Jack Kosslyn’s class he was known for the occasional improvisation that blew people away. Starting with a line from Dirty Harry (“I know what you’re thinking …”) and ending with the staple “Make my day!” from Sudden Impact, suggests that he did give thought to the symmetry of his speech.
Clint’s “imaginary colloquy with the President” was “at times borderline profane,” according to Double Down. (Clint to chair: “What do you want me to tell Romney? I can’t tell him to do that. He can’t do that to himself!”). Eastwood took Dirty Harry-like potshots at Obama’s onetime profession (“I never thought it was a good idea for attorneys to be President anyway”) and sniped at Vice President Joseph Biden, a bogeyman of Republicans, as a “kind of a grin with a body behind it.”
Other times the speech was “meandering,” Halperin and Heilemann wrote. At first the crowd laughed at his jokes, then the convention audience seemed to get “nervous for him—as if they were rooting for a doddering uncle as he struggled through a wedding toast, and were relieved when he yielded back the mic.”
Clint extemporized for “twelve excruciating minutes,” Double Down recounted, followed by the main act of Romney himself “with a new challenge before him: not just to give a knockout speech, but to obliterate the memory of Eastwood.”