NOW with Alex Wagner | August 31, 2012
>>> i know what you're thinking. you're thinking what's a movie tradesman doing out here.
>> all things being equal, it wasn't that strange to have a blockbuster movie star, a celebrity guest who has delivered countless classic lines on the silver screen appear on stage to rev up the crowd for mitt romney . nothing was that odd about it until this.
>> so i've got -- i've got mr. obama sitting here and i just was going to ask him a couple questions, but --
>> over the next seven minutes, clint eastwood proceeded to have a conversation with an empty chair.
>> mr. president, how do you -- how do you handle -- how do you handle promises that you've made when you were running for election and how do you handle -- how do you handle it? i mean, what do you say to people? do you just, you know, i know people are wondering, you know --
>> as the interview continued, things got a little testy.
>> i thought maybe as an excuse -- what do you mean, shut up?
>> and ultimately, even a little crude.
>> what do you want me to tell romney ? i can't tell him to do that. can't do that to himself. you're absolutely crazy.
>> just to be clear, clint eastwood is calling the empty chair crazy. joining the table now is host of "inside the actor's studio" james lipton . always a pleasure to have you on set.
>> thank you very much. great pleasure to be here.
>> let's talk first about clint eastwood , which was -- i think in many ways, one of the stranger moments in any political convention in recent memory. what was your assessment of the empty chair device?
>> full disclosure . clint is a friend of mine. we're not close friends but he's a friend of mine. i know him well. we have done things together and i like him enormously. i find him a very congenial person. he's also a great director. late in his career, became a very great director. that said, last night was not his best performance. look, we're talking here about something i know a little bit about, and he was doing an improv. that's ad lib . an improv, you needed a partner. he created one for himself. george bernard shaw was great because he always gave the best lines to the antagonists. the reason being that the stronger the antagonist, the stronger the protagonist because he has something to fight against. what he gave to barack obama was, well, not the best lines. it was a couple vulgarities. first of all, shut up, then go blank yourself, a word we can't utter here, of course, and shouldn't have been uttered there, certainly not before the candidate was going to come out and impress us with what a wonderful character he was. the result was, let me say this, in my opinion, obama is incapable of saying shut up and go blank yourself in any normal circumstance and is capable, in eloquent and i think proper replies. he was not given that opportunity. the words were put in his mouth. the words were vulgar and worse, they were disrespectful. i can remember a number of presidential campaigns where presidents who were running for re-election were not treated quite this disrespectfully.
>> the other thing, we will remind back a few months ago when clint eastwood made this infamous ad in the super bowl that appealed to white working class voters. it was a car ad and everyone thought he's in the tank for obama but --
>> quickly denied it.
>> yes. clearly he is not in the tank for obama .
>> unless it was a liberal plant. this is my theory.
>> right. but you know, i think the american public imagines clint eastwood , he's a legendary actor, to be a real sort of true american, someone who is not subject to sort of the -- what is in fashion, but is someone of principle and integrity. this came off not only as ill thought through but just completely on the fly.
>> it was ad lib , no question about it. he got himself in trouble. he was in trouble throughout it. you saw him sort of fumbling for what's next. in an improv it should go smoothly but that's if you have a partner who is coming back at you. important stuff. here, unfortunately he was having to play both roles and while he plays himself brilliantly, he is the successor to john wayne in the public's imagination and estimation, he did not play obama well at all. he did him a great disservice.
>> yeah. i think that we tend to fetishize respect for the office too much. we are a republic, the president is elected by us, we shouldn't get too -- i resist the kind of pomp and circumstance stuff. that said, he was sitting in a chair, so he was being literally physically talked down to.
>> down to.
>> down to. and like a school boy, who like an errant school boy and my executive producer made this point about you know, clint eastwood and the rnc should go back and read "the invisible man" because there's a whole masterpiece of american literature around the experience of invisibility in front of the white power structure for a black man in america. obviously i don't want to say that was obviously the intentional subtext. i think it was not thought out. they wanted to have a gag. but the way it reads was deeply, deeply profoundly, profoundly disrespectful in a way that really, i found kind of upsetting.
>> one of the things about this campaign that has fascinated me is the number of jokes that have gone over like lead balloons.
>> i have never heard quite so many jokes that weren't really funny. they're structured like a joke, sounds like a joke, you think you're listening to a joke except it's not funny.
>> mark halperin , the romney campaign issued a statement shortly after clint eastwood 's i guess we will call it an address, role playing game , basically trying to distance themselves. was this not sort of a debacle for them insofar as clint eastwood was supposed to tee it up for mitt romney and did basically anything but?
>> right. three quick things in response. one is full disclosure , i don't think i have ever met clint eastwood . i might have met him once, i don't recall. two, it reminded me like nothing so much as once i saw bobcat goldthwait do an impromptu thing where he talked to a bowling pin . last thing i'll say, this is a very well run convention in a lot of respects. they had to deal with the fact the storm truncated by a day but it is malpractice to put someone on stage, i don't care how famous they are, how great a performer they are, to put someone on stage, not know what they're going to say in the prime time hour right before the nominee, huge mistake and i'm sure they're not particularly pleased by how that went and mrs. romney this morning in her round robin of interviews i think betrayed a little bit of that unhappiness more openly than the campaign statement defending the performance did.
>> they clearly should have gotten bobcat goldthwait to tee it up. karen?
>> to this point about the disrespect, i love clint eastwood . part of what was so painful in watching that was that that performance was not clint eastwood . the clint eastwood that we know, the image of the clint eastwood we know, and it was disappointing. i sort of felt like where were his people to say no, we're not letting him go out on stage with his hair unbrushed and just wing it.
>> i had the impression clint said yes, i'll do it and they said what do you want to do and he said i'll just think of something and they said fine. that's a mistake. the very least he should have asked for an opening line.
>> look what's happened. i have been sitting out here for six or seven minutes. what have we been talking about? mitt romney ? no. that's the take-home from last night's event.
>> let us talk about mitt romney , he whose name shall not be mentioned. how did mitt romney do last night, in terms of presenting his case as an actor?
>> not as an actor but as a performer, let's say. he's not an actor.
>> yes. sorry.
>> i would say that he has certainly improved, without question. he was more confident. he was more assertive. he was more relaxed. and let us now ask why. he was preaching to the converted. he was, as we say, preaching to the choir. there was nobody there to resist, there was no resistance, there was adoration and as a result he was relaxed. the test will be when he goes back on the campaign and if once again he tries to assume the mantle of the common man among real genuine honest-to-goodness common people , then he's going to be in trouble and going to be right back where he was. it will undo some of the good done, unquestionable good that was done by this portrait of him that was painted by other people. that's characteristic of conventions but nonetheless, it was other people saying he did this, he did that, he was wonderful. all true, all fine, but the fact remains that he still has to master the art of speaking to people directly, eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart and soul-to-soul and really, really meaning it.
>> the big question i think, i couldn't agree more. the big question is, people are appealing when they're being magnanimous, when they're talking about love and their family and things they evidently care about. but the next time, the next three instances in which we will see him at a stage of this elevation are the debates. then there's conflict and there's the possibility of anger and there are certain tells that he has that were not in the speech because it was a set piece and they did a very good job, but the kind of $10,000 bet, the kind of smile, grimace --
>> grabbing of the shoulder.
>> those moments are when i think he's probably least likeable and that is going to be the big question, is can he maintain the more in sorrow than anger tone he had in the speech when directly across from the president.
>> i actually thought this was a really interesting moment for romney when he started making i won't say a joke, but he was humble about his beginnings at bain . let's take a listen to that. he was talking about bain capital and he said the only problem was while we believed in ourselves, not many other people did. let's take a listen to that.
>> so we started a new business called bain capital . the only problem was while we believed in ourselves, not many other people did. we were young and had never done this before and we almost didn't get off the ground. in those days, sometimes i wondered if i had made a really big mistake .
>> i think, karen, we know he's had a really hard time talking about his business experience, the bain thing. that to me was one of the best presentations of mitt romney as someone who built something from the ground up, there were mistakes made, he was able to talk about it with a certain measure of humility.
>> that was probably his best performance in the speech, given that the " rolling stone " piece that came out yesterday, that really told the story about bain and how they, oh, guess what, they didn't build that on their own either. there was a role for government to play in helping build it and one of the things i found most interesting in the story is that's where romney seemed to have perfected this strategy of i will make sure that our investors get money even if the company goes bankrupt. that was part of from a financial standpoint what they did when their company was tanking, when he was talking about the rocky periods. but you would never know that from that beautiful --
>> was that not -- james, what did you make of that, the way in which he addressed his business career?
>> what he did at bain , when i was a youngster, living in detroit, they used to be called efficiency experts. they dropped that. now they have a much, much, much nicer title. but when the efficiency experts arrived on the scene, the people who worked there trembled. they knew what it meant. the way you make more money is by cutting costs. the way you cut costs is by cutting human beings . that was the difficulty then. they don't say efficiency expert anymore because it has bad connotations. i think that's one of his problems in talking about bain . that's what they do. they have done good and they have done not so good. he speaks of it, when we failed, but when they failed, they still made money, i am told.
>> that's the thing about bain . you talk about bain and as part of the mythology of the celebration of the job creator, the successful which is seen as a counterpoint to the attacks on success that he called the cornerstone i think of the president's campaign is that if you are taking risk, bain managed to make money every year. the returns they made were incredible. what exactly is wrong with this picture? if you take on risk, sometimes you are going to lose.
>> because they were playing in the real free market system because they mitigated their risk so he and the investors were pretty much always shielded which is why when companies went under and people lost everything, their pensions, their health care , they still walked away with millions.
>> i'm fascinated with language and the way language shifts and changes. what do we hear particularly from the republicans, of course, the two words, job creator. what did that used to be called? it was a boss.
>> once upon a time there was a boss. the boss wasn't always a nice guy. but now boss has been replaced by job creator. i love all these euphemisms because they soften the impact of some occasionally difficult facts.
>> efficiency experts and bosses, absolutely right on point.
>> james lipton , we look forward to having you here all the time throughout the campaign season. thank you to you. of course, catch james lipton on "inside the actor's studio." more from him after the president's speech next week.
>>> cue the dems as the party prepares to descend on charlotte, we will talk strategy. does the president need to go positive or negative? you