Late on Thursday night, in a pairing that might explain why CNN has not been winning the ratings war, the magician/comedian/conservative pundit Penn Jillette was trying to convince host Piers Morgan that Clint Eastwood’s speech wasn’t the disaster everyone was making it out to be.
His argument was more boisterous than persuasive. But his basic point, that it’s not a bad thing to be unpredictable or unpolished, perhaps shouldn’t be dismissed completely out of hand.
Before going any further, it needs to be said: Mr. Eastwood was flat-out horrible, and anyone who suggests a media conspiracy against him needs to watch or re-watch the clip. To revisit, the man spent roughly ten minutes having a conversation with an empty chair, some of his sentences trailing off into the unintelligible. At one point, he appeared to be joking about the Afghanistan war - launched under a Republican president - being a bad idea. He also pretended that the chair, a stand-in for Barack Obama, had told Mitt Romney to do something unpleasant to himself. An audience that had jumped to its feet when he made his quasi-surprise entrance was reduced to nervous laughter shortly thereafter.
It also needs to be said that nothing thrills journalists at a convention quite like seeing the teleprompter stop rolling when someone interesting and not entirely predictable takes the stage. And while that admittedly can be chalked up partly to the possibility that the speaker will fall flat on his or her face, it’s also because it raises the possibility that we’re finally going to get beyond a heavily scripted TV production into something more meaningful and engaging.
It’s a shame the Republicans chose the wrong guy for the job, because of future reference. In three nights, they took one big gamble - a big, stupid gamble, but still - and it blew up on them. So what are the odds that they’ll gamble at all, four years from now?
The really unfortunate thing about Mr. Eastwood’s performance - if you’re not Mitt Romney, for whom the really unfortunate thing is that it turned one of the most important nights of his life into the butt of jokes - is that it may serve to make conventions more numbingly predictable in future.