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Clint Eastwood's Super Bowl showdown: Chrysler vs. conservatives

February 8, 2012 |  1:34 pm

Clint Eastwood
When I sat down to talk politics with Clint Eastwood in November, the 81-year-old movie icon made it crystal clear that he didn’t vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and wasn’t planning to in 2012 either. In fact, since Clint first voted for president, way back in 1952, he couldn’t remember ever voting for a Democrat.

Moreover, when it came to government stimulus, he had this to say: “We shouldn’t be bailing out the banks and car companies. If a CEO can’t figure out how to make his company profitable, then he shouldn’t be the CEO.”

So if Clint was against bailouts, why did he do the now infamous Super Bowl ad for Chrysler? And why did it hit such a raw nerve with conservatives, who’ve been up in arms for the last few days, convinced that Dirty Harry had suddenly become a shill for Obama?


To hear the caterwauling on the right, you’d think that Clint was proposing that Detroit embrace sharia law, not sell more made-in-America automobiles. Fox News commentator Karl Rove labeled the ad “Chicago-style politics,” saying it was a sign of what happens when “the president of the United States and political minions are in essence using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.” National Review editor Rich Lowry lambasted the ad as a ludicrous deification of Detroit, arguing that “If Detroit is a model for our future, we should prepare for national collapse … it remains a byword for urban apocalypse.”

New York Post film critic Kyle Smith was just as scathing, saying: “It’s hard to think of Clint Eastwood as dishonest, isn’t it? But it’s either that or he’s just too dumb to realize his Super Bowl ad was an Obama campaign commercial.”

All I can say is: Did they see the same ad that the rest of us did? Or as one commenter on YouTube put it: “Would someone please tell the right-wing hyperventilators that ‘working together’ is not a code for communism.”

I don’t pretend to know Eastwood all that well, but having interviewed him a few times over the years, it seems pretty clear to me that he did the ad because, personal politics aside, he’s delighted to see — and be associated with — an underdog American company that’s actually generating home-grown manufacturing jobs. Any effort to put blue-collar folk back to work is OK with him, even if his natural political instincts made him suspicious of big government putting Chrysler back in the driver’s seat.

Eastwood, thank God, is not a professional politician, so for him, job creation trumps ideology. Unfortunately, in today’s hyper-partisan political universe, that sort of attitude is akin to heresy.

Still, something else was at work here. First off, the Super Bowl is such a huge spectacle — this year’s broadcast had roughly 110 million viewers — that in the new social media era almost any big event will, by its mass-cult nature,  generate some kind of controversy. Sometimes it’s a tasteless ad, sometimes it’s an inappropriate gesture  during the halftime show. But something, however minor, is almost guaranteed to provoke a storm of indignation, even if nearly all the Sturm und Drang evaporates in a matter of days.

But the uproar over the Chrysler ad also has a lot to do with Eastwood’s iconic status as America’s most beloved tough guy. After all, Eminem did an ad for Chrysler during last year’s Super Bowl that was virtually indistinguishable in tone from the Eastwood spot without prompting even a ripple of GOP protest. So it wasn’t just the message, it was also the messenger.

Conservative operatives like Rove had every reason to view the ad as being an Obama vehicle — if the Obama campaign were hiring a spokesman to get its message across to swing voters, Eastwood would be at the top of the list. The only problem with this logic was that the Super Bowl spot was made by a car company, not the White House. And despite all of the conspiracy theorizing, there’s no evidence that Chrysler paid $12.8 million for the two-minute spot as political payback to the White House. Chrysler simply had the good fortune of finding the world’s best pitchman for its message.
The message itself was shrewd. The ad copy identified Chrysler with classic American can-do spirit, with the sandpaper-voiced Eastwood saying: “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again, and when we do, the world’s going to hear the roar of our engines.”

If you believed that Obama was somehow the beneficiary of this uplift, it hit a raw nerve, because in politics, the candidate who usually wins is the one with the most optimistic message, which is why Ronald Reagan, propelled by his “Morning in America” maxim, won a landslide reelection victory in 1984. But the candidates in this year’s GOP presidential primaries have painted a gloomy portrait of America, presided over by Barack Obama, as a nation in decline.

The Eastwood ad sketches a different story line, arguing that America, led by embattled Detroit, is ready for a comeback. It hit an especially sensitive spot, since most conservatives have been on the other side of the bailout issue — after all, it was Mitt Romney who penned a 2008 op-ed article for the New York Times saying, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”  

In fact, Chrysler has already paid back nearly 90% of the bailout funds it received from both the Bush and Obama administrations. That’s a little-seen factoid that may have been glossed over in the Super Bowl ad media onslaught, but I suspect it had an impact on Eastwood’s decision to do the ad. When we talked in November, he said he was against bailouts, but he also expressed admiration for people who, in economic hard times, found a way to succeed.

“When people are forced to figure things out,” he said, “it makes you more creative at what you do.” In simplified form, that’s what has happened to the American auto industry, which is perhaps why Clint was happy to lend his grizzled gravitas to its turn-around saga. Whether it’s in the movies or real life, people love comeback stories. And when it’s Clint Eastwood telling the story, it’s awfully hard to argue that he’s put politics ahead of principle.


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Photo: Clint Eastwood speaking with reporters at the opening of the Warner Bros. Theater at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington.

Credit: Cliff Owen/Associated Press