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Originally published August 31, 2012 at 10:05 PM | Page modified August 31, 2012 at 11:06 PM

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Eastwood's conversation with chair was unrehearsed surprise

Some finger-pointing followed Clint Eastwood's rambling endorsement of Mitt Romney on Thursday night at the Republican National Convention.

Related developments

Rove apology: Republican strategist Karl Rove apologized Friday to U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., after joking about the Senate candidate being murdered. Akin campaign adviser Rick Tyler said Akin accepted Rove's apology. Bloomberg Businessweek's website had quoted Rove as telling GOP donors in Florida: "We should sink Todd Akin. If he's found mysteriously murdered, don't look for my whereabouts!" Akin's recent remarks about pregnancy and "legitimate rape" have stirred controversy.

Romney visit: Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney visited storm-battered Louisiana on Friday, stopping in the fishing community of Jean Lafitte, where Isaac brought severe flooding. Romney shook some hands and told Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal: "I'm here to learn and obviously to draw some attention to what's going on here."

Obama stop: In a reminder that he ended the war in Iraq, President Obama visited the Fort Bliss Army post in El Paso, Texas, on Friday and vowed to help soldiers, veterans and their families overcome economic and health-care struggles as they return to the nation they have served. Surrounded by a sea of men and women in fatigues, Obama saluted their service, but cautioned that a "tough fight" remains in Afghanistan. His visit came on the second anniversary of the end of combat operations in Iraq.

TV ratings: About 30.3 million viewers over 11 networks watched the final night of the Republican National Convention, which featured Mitt Romney and Clint Eastwood, Nielsen Co. said Friday. Four years ago, John McCain's acceptance speech was viewed by more than 40 million over seven networks.

Seattle Times news services

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TAMPA, Fla. — Now we know why political conventions are scripted.

Mitt Romney delivered a good and personal acceptance speech Thursday night.

His campaign produced a sterling video about the candidate.

People who know Romney offered testimony about his values, his compassion and his business acumen.

But all anyone seemed to be talking about when the convention ended was Clint Eastwood and an empty chair.

The discomfort of Ann Romney, on "CBS This Morning" on Friday, spoke volumes about how the Eastwood moment was received. She tried her best to be positive, but she clearly was surprised by what she had witnessed onstage.

As the broadcast networks were opening their prime-time coverage, what Americans saw was not that well-produced video, but a celebrated director and actor talking — sometimes talking trash — to an empty chair that was a proxy for President Obama.

Eastwood's rambling and off-color endorsement of Romney seemed to startle and unsettle the candidate's top aides, several of whom made a point of distancing themselves from the decision to put him onstage without a polished script.

"Not me," said an exasperated-looking senior adviser, when asked who was responsible for Eastwood's speech. In interviews, aides variously called the speech "strange" and "weird."

One described it as "theater of the absurd." Finger-pointing quickly ensued, suggesting real displeasure and even confusion over the handling of Eastwood's performance, on the night that Romney accepted the Republican presidential nomination.

Unrehearsed

A senior Republican involved in convention planning said Eastwood's appearance was cleared by at least two of Romney's top advisers, Russ Schriefer and Stuart Stevens. This person said there had been no rehearsal, to the surprise of the rest of the campaign team.

But another adviser said several top aides had reviewed talking points given to Eastwood, which the campaign had discussed with the director and actor as recently as a few hours before his appearance.

Eastwood, however, delivered those points in a way that caught Romney aides off guard, this person said. Eastwood even ignored warnings that he had exceeded his time.

The performance seemed to go down well with the audience in the Tampa Bay Times Forum, but it looked bizarre on the television screen.

Stevens, in an interview, said he would not discuss internal decision-making but described Eastwood's remarks as improvised.

"He spoke from the heart with a classic improv sketch, which everyone at the convention loved," Stevens said.

He called it "an honor that a great American icon would come and talk about the failure of the current president and the promise of the future one."

How it unfolded

Eastwood delivered one of the more unusual moments in Republican convention history: a speech in which he pretended to have a sarcasm-filled conversation with President Obama sitting by his side in an empty chair. Initially, there were no plans for Eastwood to take a chair onstage as a prop. But at the last minute, the actor asked the production staff backstage if he could use one, but did not explain why.

"The prop person probably thought he was going to sit in it," a senior aide said.

"Mr. President, how do you handle promises that you made when you were running for election?" the onetime Dirty Harry said, mumbling to a befuddled crowd of thousands in the convention hall and millions of television viewers.

As thousands of "OMG!" tweets started flying, Eastwood, 82, asked the invisible Obama why he had not closed the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

"What do you mean, shut up?" he said, continuing to talk to his imaginary companion. 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," Eastwood said, drawing laughter from the crowd. "You're getting as bad as Biden."

Leonard Hirshan, Eastwood's manager, said the actor was traveling and would not be available for interviews until he started promotional work shortly for his next film, "Trouble With the Curve," which is set for release Sept. 21.

"He does these things for himself," said Hirshan, who spoke by telephone Friday morning. "It's his private life. He believes in what he's doing."

Romney enjoyed it

The networks began their hour of convention coverage at 10 p.m. Eastern time, which meant Eastwood was the first act of the night for their viewers. He was scheduled to speak for about five minutes, but stayed onstage much longer, throwing off the schedule for Romney, a stickler against tardiness.

As Eastwood ran long, convention producers activated a red light on the camera stand opposite the stage, a signal to nudge speakers to wrap up their remarks.

Despite the fuss the speech created, the campaign insisted Romney enjoyed it.

"I was backstage with him, and he was laughing," Stevens said.

Aides said Eastwood does not like teleprompters and was trusted to deliver an on-message endorsement.

Two aides said Eastwood had been booked weeks ago and the expectation was that he would deliver a more standard endorsement, as he did earlier in Sun Valley, Idaho.

After that endorsement, Romney asked Eastwood to come to the convention, one of these people said. Advisers said Eastwood mentioned all the points they had agreed upon, including an unemployment figure, but the aides had expected him to address the issues in a more straightforward manner.

As they hopped from party to party late Thursday and early Friday, celebrating the end of the Republican convention, Romney advisers tried gamely to find an upside. Several said the Eastwood appearance offered a moment of improvisation in a convention that was otherwise surprise-free.

It was also a reminder of a larger reality about campaigns these days. No matter how scripted, no matter how well-executed, there are always things that go wrong — and when they do, those events can become momentarily supersized, overshadowing all the good things a campaign has done.

Since Clint Eastwood's unusual exchange with an empty chair at the Republican National Convention on Thursday night, the collective creativity of the Internet has generated countless illustrations and other widely circulated memes making light of his speech.

But one humorous image, made to look as if it came from an episode of "The Simpsons," overstates the predictive power of that satirical Fox cartoon series.

The meme, which has spread rapidly on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, shows the cantankerous character Grampa Simpson in a newspaper clipping, shaking his fist in a photograph beneath the headline "Old Man Yells at Chair." The image is often accompanied by captions reading: "The Simpsons knew it was coming."

Although rival animators have previously expressed their awed frustration at the ability of "Simpsons" writers to beat them to every possible joke and plotline, in this case, "The Simpsons" didn't do it.

That image of Grampa Simpson, created by a thus-far anonymous denizen of the Web, is an alteration of a gag that appeared in a 2002 "Simpsons" episode called "The Old Man and the Key": Lacking a photograph for a driver's license, Grampa displays an old newspaper article whose headline reads: "Old Man Yells at Cloud."

On Friday, Al Jean, "The Simpsons" executive producer, acknowledged he and his colleagues did not have quite enough foresight to anticipate Eastwood's convention speech.

"We didn't predict this, but we guarantee the world will end Dec. 21," Jean wrote in an email.

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