Clint Eastwood’s “surprise” speech—or should we call it a performance?—during the final night of the Republican National Convention probably raised a lot more questions about Mitt Romney and the GOP (and Eastwood himself) than it reasonably intended to clarify. Indeed, there are so many approaches one can take to explaining Eastwood’s ten minutes in Tampa—during which he engaged in an increasingly-contentious debate with a chair containing an invisible President Obama—that it seems almost unfair to have to pick only one.
What particularly struck me and millions of other viewers, I dare say, was the shtick’s overall tone. Certainly words such as “absurd” and “irreverent” would find themselves at home here, not to mention “ridiculous,” “macabre” and good-old “strange.”
But then there’s the one that crossed many lips, suggesting a more serious concern: Disrespectful.
To begin: It is the nature of a political convention, in a year when the president is seeking re-election, for the opposition party to say less-than-flattering things about the incumbent, often in extremis. It is the right of every citizen to do so; no one could possibly argue to the contrary.
However, this does not resolve the following proposition: Is there a base level of respect—of due deference, you might say—owed to the president of the United States, whoever he happens to be, below which no decent person should publicly sink? If so, did Eastwood’s act, and others like it last week, cross the line into unacceptable disrespect toward the highest officer in the land?
Inherent in this quandary is the crucial distinction between the president as a person and the presidency as an institution. When the president enters the House chamber every year to deliver his State of the Union address, for instance, it is tradition for everyone in the hall to applaud, regardless of partisan considerations. Here, they are applauding the office of the presidency itself, not the particular present holder of it. The moment stands as affirmation of the miracle of America’s endurance as a democratic republic, a government of laws and not men.
Accordingly, on a day-to-day basis the president is very much an individual, no better or more sacred than any of us, not above the law and certainly not above the scorn of the public he serves or the Congress with whom he negotiates. When George W. Bush was the man in charge, there was no end to the insults and critiques—be they serious or petty—toward him and his policies, as was the case during the reigns of Clinton, the elder Bush and every other leader you can think of. Who could possibly have it any other way?
The answer to that, you might recall, is John Adams, who in 1798 signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which (among other things) made it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish” anything deemed “scandalous and malicious […] against the government of the United States, or […] the Congress […] or the President.” The collective legislation yielded 25 arrests and ten convictions before expiring in 1801. Today it is viewed, with near-unanimity, as the most shameful act of Adams’ career.
As historians have noted, the Sedition Act curiously did not include the vice president amongst its protected would-be targets—likely because the office-holder at the time, one Thomas Jefferson, was so hated by those who drafted it.
We could dismiss this as mere playful trivia today, but is there not some residual currency in this dynamic, whereby the vice president stands to endure the wrath to which the president is somehow immune? The vice presidency itself being a rather paltry institution by comparison, perhaps this is an apt use for it: Collect the arrows directed at Barack Obama and redirect them toward Joe Biden. I leave the thought with you.
Disrespectful or not, I enjoyed Eastwood’s takedown of President Obama for its novelty and irreverence. For its function as a rebuke to supposedly free countries such as Russia, where members of the punk-rock group Pussy Riot were recently jailed for making disparaging comments about President Vladimir Putin—a turn of events that rightly strikes any American as intolerable.
Imperative in any case is the principle of consistency—approving or disapproving of certain speech against the president irrespective of who he is. As with so much else, to delight in the rhetorical flogging of a President Bush only to recoil in disgust at identical behavior when directed at a President Obama is not merely intellectually dishonest—it is boring.