Eastwood unseats Romney

Clint Eastwood has a wacky talk with the seat of power in Tampa.
Clint Eastwood has a wacky talk with the seat of power in Tampa. (J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE / AP)

Chair chat is meme of the moment.

Posted: September 02, 2012

This is a story about a man and his chair.

And how that chair became, for an explosive moment, the star of a presidential race.

Clint Eastwood's speech Thursday night at the Republican National Convention in Tampa was an amiable amble through the backroads of the flinty superstar's mind. No matter how high the weeds got, the crowd loved it. Scripted jests, ad libs, that throat-slice move, the off-color bits - the whole thing worked for them.

But Eastwood's speech (cbsn.ws/NAnMQv), much of it a chat between himself and an empty chair for an imaginary Barack Obama, touched off a Twitterversy that dominated post-convention conversation.

That chair became a proxy for the big party battle, the fight to frame the issues and the opposition.

It's the way politics is done now in the global living room of social media: Words and images stand as proxies for the larger, monumental clash of parties.

Even before man and chair quit the stage, thousands were cheering or mocking. Country singer Blake Shelton, a judge on NBC's The Voice, tweeted: "I. Love. Clint Eastwood." And country fiddle god Charlie Daniels jumped up on a hickory stump and tweeted that "Clint Eastwood made my day." Charleston, S.C., writer Charlet Faye tweeted that "Clint's depiction of @BarackObama MIA was dead-on . . . since absence from the 'seat' is what he's done best."

But mostly, the imperial thumb turned down. Roger Ebert tweeted that "Clint, my hero, is coming across as sad and pathetic. He didn't need to do this to himself. It's unworthy of him." Asked to rank Eastwood's performance, the eminent film critic refused, calling it a "snarky and cruel thing to do."

In this era of instant essays, Michael Moore of the Daily Beast called it "a performance that seemed to have been written by Timothy Leary and performed by Cheech & Chong," and CNN's Howard Kurtz and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow called it the most bizarre thing they'd ever seen.

Marc Eliot, author of American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood, says the speech showed that the actor is "not that comfortable being spontaneous, being unscripted. As a producer/director, he's a control freak, and last night he did not show control." Eliot says it's "a very bad thing for a party looking to connect with younger voters," awkward for TV, since Eastwood, scripted for 3 to 4 minutes, overstayed, pushing Mitt Romney's acceptance speech over the far edge of prime time.

Ah, but . . . that chair. It ceased to be a chair, becoming instead . . . a meme, a word, phrase, image, or idea rocketed throughout the Web, ubiquitous, trenchant.

Both sides grabbed for it. Democratic operative Paul Begala tweeted, "We all focus on the empty chair and not Romney. But in truth the empty chair gave a better speech." Author Janie Johnson tweeted that "Liberals are so upset with @clinteastwood because an empty chair had more substance than Obama!"

Beneath a photo of Eastwood and chair, Zach D. Roberts affixed the slogan "EASTWOOD/CHAIR 2012," as if it were the GOP ticket.

Andrew Beaujon of the Poynter Institute noted that the empty chair was already a multimedia meme. CNN's Piers Morgan and MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell and Thomas Roberts all have interviewed vacant furniture lately. Morgan called his (standing in for beleaguered Senate candidate Todd Akin) "a gutless little twerp." The Smithsonian Institution, with hilarious seriousness, traced the tradition of politicians' interrogating empty chairs back to "at least 1924."

A brand-new word was born: eastwooding, the act of talking to an empty chair. Twitter, Instagram (in which photos are conversational tender), and Pinterest were furnished with people's photos of furniture, of themselves lecturing, upbraiding, arguing with their sofas, stools, and settees. The hashtag #eastwooding ricocheted to at least 29,000 Twitter accounts, according to TweetReach.

Then, with blistering speed, meme was countermemed. Within minutes of Eastwood's last eastwooding, the Obama campaign tweeted a stiff, bracing rejoinder that took on its own viral life: "This seat's taken" (bit.ly/TCiq3M), beneath a photo of Obama, apparently at a cabinet meeting, shot from behind his chair, with its burnished bronze tag reading "THE PRESIDENT, January 20, 2009."

The hashtag #thisseatstaken instantly rocketed up the trend lists. According to TweetReach, the hashtag and variants reached more than 270,000 accounts by early Friday afternoon.

Making up words is nothing new for politics.

"For at least the last century, the media have always churned up new words, and the social media just accelerate that process," says Geoffrey Nunberg, linguist, professor at the University of California Berkeley School of Information, and NPR contributor. "These things bounce around at ferocious speed. It's almost as if all the paper in the world has disappeared and the words are free-floating through the universe."

Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, says, "Certainly Eastwood's performance was ripe for something like this." He wonders aloud what would have happened in 1988 if the Republicans had been able to turn into a meme the famous image of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in a tank.  


What difference could any of this silliness make? Delli Carpini says it's all about "framing." Both parties are sweatily seeking to frame the issues - that is, persuade people to see Medicare, or the Afghanistan war, or the economy, a certain way.

But the sheer speed of social media may tell, says Delli Carpini. "The reframing," as in "This seat's taken," "occurs before the original framing [Clint and chair] has a chance to take." Reach is important, too. "When something 'clicks,' the potential audience dwarfs anything we saw at the height of broadcast TV's reach."

Is this a different kind of political/public discourse? Maybe so, says Delli Carpini, since millions of people now have access to media and can do and say what they want, with an unpredictable mixture of information, opinion, and humor. And say it right away.

Eliot wonders aloud whether the GOP lost twice on Thursday night - once in the chair-meme war, and once in the way the Eastwood(ing) flap mucked up what should have been Mitt Romney's night.

The next morning, Ann Romney was faintly praising Eastwood as "a unique guy" who "did a unique thing last night." Meantime, the Web was still playing musical chairs with a speech that was any which way but tight.

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @jtimpane.

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