For a man running for president on his managerial expertise, Mitt Romney could not have bungled his own nomination more if he hadn’t planned it.
Clint Eastwood’s surreal performance with a chair was not the worst of the mistakes Romney’s convention planning team made, but it was emblematic of their confusion over how to make politics into a primetime TV show.
The Eastwood Debacle
On a night that should have been Mitt, Mitt and nothing but Mitt, the convention planners thought they would capture the primetime audience’s attention with what they hyped through the week as a “mystery guest.” They scripted out––as they do for all the speakers––a five-minute speech for Eastwood.
But Clint had a really, really great idea. He’d ad-lib an interview with an empty chair, pretending it was Obama––and no one on the team had the guts to say no! For 12 minutes, he stumbled and mumbled his way through his routine, taking pot shots at having a lawyer in the White House (Romney has a degree from Harvard Law), suggesting we pull our troops out of Afghanistan tomorrow morning (not exactly Romney’s position), and channeling an invisible Obama telling Romney to go ____ himself. SEE IT HERE.
Campaign functionaries who have been ordering around governors, senators and an array of other public officials all week cowered in the face of celebrity, and months of meticulous convention planning crumbled into chaos. As the spectacle unfolded, the Twittersphere exploded with comments. Here are just a handful from my TweetDeck:
Rich Lowry (National Review): I can’t believe this is happening.
Taegen Goddard (Political Wire): So the Romney Campaign thought an old man talking to a chair was a good idea? This is bizarre.
Molly Ball (The Atlantic): This has got to be the most surreal moment in any political convention in modern history.
Ezra Klein (Washington Post): This is the best thing that ever happened.
Walter Shapiro (Politics Daily): The Eastwood tasteless remarks are a new low in American politics.
Michael Scherer (Time Magazine): Would it be inappropriate to ask for a blood alcohol test?
No Coverage, No Oxygen
Aside from the how inappropriate Eastwood’s remarks were, his appearance created two immediate problems for the Romney camp. It pushed Romney’s own speech back 12 minutes so many TV stations in the East had to decide whether to extend network coverage or cut away to their own network news; and it will doubtlessly eat up all the oxygen in Friday morning’s news coverage, leaving little room for anyone to hear, or care about what Romney himself had to say.
The Best Hour on TV
The irony of the Romney camp’s decision to feature Eastwood in primetime is that it forced them to put some of the most moving speeches at the convention and a terrific biographical video into the hour before primetime when only CNN, FOX, NBC and CSPAN were providing live coverage.
For months, Democrats have been hammering Romney over Bain Capital and how his wealth puts him out of touch with ordinary people. The whole point of this convention was to “humanize” Romney: to show his caring side. That’s why so much emphasis was placed on the Ann Romney speech Tuesday night. But that didn’t work out so good. (See “Ann Romney Falls Flat.”)
Testimonials to Competence and Faith
In this programming block, 10 people who benefited from Bain Capital’s investment and Romney’s Mormon charity (yes, they talk about it openly) appeared to tell their personal stories of Romney’s care and concern. Among them were:
* A Medford (MA) firefighter and his wife who lost their 14-year-old son to lymphoma. During his illness and on his deathbed, the son came to appreciate Romney’s unprompted visits. The son even asked Romney to help write a will to distribute his toys to his friends and deliver the eulogy at his funeral.
* A tearful old friend recounting the many ways The Romneys helped her child battle back from a childhood illness.
* Tom Stemberg, the founder of Staples, telling about Romney’s early support and personal involvement in helping grow Staples into a company with 87,000 employees today.
* Bob White, his “wingman” at Bain Capital (and campaign manager) telling about how Romney insisted on integrity, respect, responsibility, and trust as the cornerstones of a new company.
*Jane Edmonds, a self-described liberal who served as Romney’s workforce training director in Massachusetts, testifying that Romney placed women into ten of his top 20 government posts in Massachusetts. “He was an amazing steward and leader,” she said.
* 12 Olympic champions singing his praises for saving the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.
Interspersed with the testimonials were more videos from employees and owners of businesses that Bain Capital rescued. But the most effective video was the one that Romney’s convention team bumped to make way for Eastwood.
A remarkable collection of historical clips, candid moments, and Romney remembrances, this Romney biographical video did in ten minutes what all the other speakers over the last week couldn’t do: it made Romney into a multi-dimensional real human being. Because it was buried in the off-hours, however, my guess it that it was seen by about 10 million fewer viewers than the Eastwood fiasco.
After The Wind-up, The Pitch
So when he finally got his triumphant moment to address the delegates, how did Romney do? Meh. He said a lot of words in a short amount of time about how his parents taught him values that led him to want to do good things. But he said them in such a sing-song way––try reading the transcript to hickory-dickory-dock and you’ll get the idea–– that it was 20 minutes before he got his first genuine roar of approval.
The line that brought it on was: “In America, we celebrate success. We don’t apologize for success.” I’m no psychoanalyst, but I think Romney was talking to himself here. (His aides say he wrote the speech himself.) During the other parts of his speech, you weren’t sure who he was talking to. But this was his defense of himself against all the negative advertising, and because he felt it so deeply, he got the audience to feel it with him.
As soon as the moment passed, he whipped out the old Powerpoint and started again to tick off his talking points:
“I’m running to . . .
- Create12 million new jobs
- Cut the deficit
- Make better trade agreements
- Support small business
- Repeal Obamacare
- Oppose new taxes
- Protect the sanctity of life
- Honor traditional marriage
- Do other stuff
When his speech came to an end––not with a bang but a whimper––the balloons fell, the Romney and Ryan families came on stage to stand around for the TV cameras . . . and the delegates streamed out of the forum to go home – or the next party.
Addendum: After finished this column, I ran into an Illinois delegate outside the hotel at 4 AM. He was waiting for a shuttle to take him to the airport to get back to Peoria. I asked him what he thought. “After Ryan spoke last night, I had chills running up my spine. I thought I just saw the next president of the United States,” he said. “Tonight? It was okay. I’m sure Romney’s great as a business partner, but he’s no showman. That’s just his personality. That’s who he is.”