From Michael Barbaro and Michael D. Shear, “Before Eastwood’s Talk With a Chair, Clearance From the Top”, in the NYT yesterday:

Mr. Eastwood’s rambling and off-color appearance just moments before the biggest speech of Mr. Romney’s life instantly became a Twitter and cable-news sensation, which drowned out much of the usual postconvention analysis that his campaign had hoped to bask in.

It’s the “off-color” that set me to musing.

First, the event itself (nearly 12 minutes long, so you might want to skip ahead to the media coverage):

Then, more of Barbaro and Shear’s story:

TAMPA, Fla. — For all the finger-pointing about Clint Eastwood’s rambling conversation with an empty chair on Thursday night, the most bizarre, head-scratching 12 minutes in recent political convention history were set in motion by Mitt Romney himself and made possible by his aides, who had shrouded the actor’s appearance in secrecy.

Mr. Romney privately invited Mr. Eastwood, of “Dirty Harry” fame, to speak after the actor had given him a gravelly, full-throated endorsement at a star-studded fund-raiser at the Sun Valley Resort Lodge in Idaho this summer. “He just made my day. What a guy,” Mr. Romney joked with his donors that night, flanked by the fake log columns of the lodge.

… Mr. Eastwood’s rambling and off-color appearance just moments before the biggest speech of Mr. Romney’s life instantly became a Twitter and cable-news sensation, which drowned out much of the usual postconvention analysis that his campaign had hoped to bask in.

… Instead of reading off a teleprompter — something Mr. Eastwood is said to despise — he pretended to have a sarcasm-filled conversation with President Obama, seated by his side.

“What do you mean, shut up?” Mr. Eastwood said, mumbling to a befuddled audience. A moment later, he stopped again, saying, “What do you want me to tell Mr. Romney?”

“I can’t tell him that. He can’t do that to himself,” Mr. Eastwood said. “You’re getting as bad as Biden.” [alluding to Joe Biden’s propensity for swearing]

Some news sources actually reported Eastwood as having used fuck:

Clint Eastwood Insults President Barack Obama At Rnc With F Word (link)

while other commentators merely reported that he suggested it:

I’m a huge Eastwood fan, but last night I wondered how he directs movies and still acts so well, yet has no better common sense then to go with the ‘F-word’ insinuation in that setting (link)

At this point, I compared Eastwood’s strategy to the way the New York Times (and some other publications) coyly avoid taboo vocabulary, saying things like “using a common vulgarity” or “he said he’d messed things up (but not in those terms)” or “he suggested I should perform an anatomically impossible act”. What’s the difference?

Well, the Times gets into these things when it’s struggling to report what people actually said; the reporters are reproducing someone else’s voice, not speaking in their own voices, but they’re obliged not to use the taboo vocabulary. (Even publications that freely quote taboo vocabulary, like the Guardian and the New Yorker, rarely allow their writers to use this vocabulary in their own voices; Sasha Frere-Jones doesn’t tell us that “the performance was fucking amazing”, even if he things it was.) Eastwood is performing a little play in which he’s alluding indirectly to fuck yourself as if it came from Obama, but the act is all in Eastwood’s voice, so people treat him as if he’s reporting the word.

Still, this is a case in which taboo-avoidance-by-insinuation counts as almost as offensive as outright use.

Three further remarks: on the empty-chair technique, on the invisible conversational partner, and on the coining of eastwooding.

The empty chair. In the same issue of the NYT, Jonathan D. Moreno offered an op-ed piece on the empty-chair technique:

Therapists often use the “empty chair” as a way of orienting a patient to a particular relationship. “Here’s your mom,” they might say. “What would you say to her if she were here, right now?” The empty chair can be a very powerful warm-up to a problematic situation, a way of concretizing dormant, suppressed or abstract emotions in an important or troubling relationship. Used properly, it can lead to insight.

… Yet we could have all learned more if Mr. Eastwood had followed through and actually put himself in the chair. What would the president have said in response to some of his remarks?

But talking to the chair is one thing, putting yourself in the chair something else altogether.

The invisible partner. Posters to ADS-L noted that Garry Trudeau has used various techniques for depicting political figutes critically, including invisibility. From Wikipedia:

… during the 1980s, character ‘Ron Headrest’ served as a doppelgänger for Ronald Reagan and was depicted as a computer-generated artificial-intelligence, an image based on the television character Max Headroom. Members of the Bush family have been depicted as invisible. During his term as Vice President, George H. W. Bush was first depicted as completely invisible, his words emanating from a little “voice box” in the air. This was originally a reference to the man’s perceived low profile and his denials of knowledge of the Iran-Contra Affair. (In one strip, published March 20, 1988, the vice president almost materialized, but only made it to an outline before reverting to invisibility.)

Later, George W. Bush was symbolized by a Stetson hat atop the same invisible point, because he was Governor of Texas prior to his presidency (Trudeau accused him of being “all hat and no cattle”, reiterating the characterization of Bush by columnist Molly Ivins). The point became a giant asterisk (a la Roger Maris) following the 2000 presidential elections and the controversy over vote-counting. Later, President Bush’s hat was changed to a Roman military helmet (again, atop an asterisk) representing imperialism. Towards the end of his first term, the helmet became battered, with the gilt work starting to come off and with clumps of bristles missing from the top. By late 2008, the helmet had been dented almost beyond recognition. No symbol for Barack Obama has appeared in the strip; the May 30, 2009 strip showed Obama and an aide wondering what the reason for this might be.

Other symbols include a waffle for the indecisive Bill Clinton (chosen by popular vote—the other possibility had been a “flipping coin”), an unexploded (but sometimes lit) bomb for the hot-tempered Newt Gingrich, a feather for the “lightweight” Dan Quayle and a giant groping hand for Arnold Schwarzenegger (who is addressed by other characters as “Herr Gröpenfuhrer”, a reference to accusations of sexual assault against Schwarzenegger). Many minor politicians have also been represented as icons over the years, like a swastika for David Duke, but only for the purposes of a gag strip or two. Trudeau has made his use of icons something of an in joke to readers, where the first appearance of a new one is often a punchline in itself.

Eastwooding. From David Barnhart on ADS-L, two quotes:

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. (John Timpane, “Eastwood unseats Romney; Chair chat is meme of the moment,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (Nexis), Sept. 1, 2012, p. A01)

The Twitter handle “Invisible Obama,” which said it was sitting “Stage left of Clint Eastwood,” quipped that “The GOP built me.” An hour after Eastwood’s speech, it already had 20,000 followers. The move spawned a new trend with people posting photos of themselves pointing at empty chairs with the hashtag “eastwooding.” (Halimah Abdullah, “Eastwood, the empty chair and the speech everyone’s talking about,” (Nexis), Aug. 30, 2012, p. not given)

Still to come: the clear verbing to eastwood. We already have photos in which Obama is represented as eastwooding Eastwood.


One Response to “off-color”

  1. Follow-up: reporting Eastwood « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] yesterday on ADS-L about Clint Eastwood at the RNC (on this blog, here), in which Benjamin Barrett noted that … because it was unsaid, there are necessarily going […]

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