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Eastwood steals the show -- and what's really so wrong with that?

The chair has the floor, too: Clint Eastwood pointedly addresses his stand-in for President Obama at GOP convention. Photo: Ed Bark

It could have been much worse. It could have been Jerry Lewis up there.

But was it really all that bad? Upon further review, no, it wasn't.

Clint Eastwood's rambling, gambling performance theater stint on closing night of the Republican National Convention has triggered a big gang of naysayers from all political perspectives.

Even a good number of prominent Republicans are wondering what got into the Romney forces. Why was Eastwood given so much leeway? Why didn't the Mitt Romney biographical film or those touching testimonies from fellow Mormons find their way into the sainted one-hour "prime-time window" of convention coverage from ABC, CBS and NBC?

I watched Eastwood Thursday night and rewound him for a closer look Friday morning. And my takeaway is this: he stumbled a bit too much after a strong start. He could have done without the anatomical jokes at the expense of the empty chair representing President Obama. At times he even seemed like an 82-year-old man who couldn't quite remember the third government agency he'd shut down as president. By the way, would you rather have had Rick Perry up there?

What Eastwood accomplished, in no small measure, was to turn the choreography on its ear and walk a tightrope of his own making. He occasionally lost his balance but never fell. And for the first time in ages, a national political convention went nakedly script-less.

But now the same people who carp about the infomercials these conventions have become are aghast about how GOP convention organizers could have gone so badly "off script." Why in the world did they allow this to happen? Where was the lockstep discipline, the second-by-second management of every speck of stage time?

Oh the horror. Eastwood should have been a dutiful, well-practiced plow horse, not Bronco Billy. And boy oh boy, now all anyone's gonna talk about is Eastwood's "bizarre" performance -- as MSNBC's Rachel Maddow said with obvious distaste -- rather than Mitt's game attempt to sell himself via Teleprompter as a really good guy who gets things done.

But so what if we're mostly talking about Eastwood over the weekend? By going long, he gave the Republicans 20 minutes more coverage than they would have had on ABC, CBS and NBC. Romney didn't finish his speech until 10:13 p.m. (central), with the broadcast networks then sticking around for several more minutes to chew things over. Some commentators now are acting as though the nominee was pushed way deep into the night and well beyond the bedtimes of many hard-working Americans. By not ending precisely at 10 p.m., the Republicans had blown an opportunity to reach the widest possible audience.

What a load. What Eastwood did was to give this convention a pick-me-up, an adrenaline shot. He was by no means entirely off the rails, but his train decidedly wasn't going to run on time. Viewers perked up, wondering what he might do next. Are there any Republicans -- or Democrats for that matter -- who would have been man or woman enough to tell him, "Now Mr. Eastwood, we need you to be short and sweet and get off the stage precisely on schedule. Can you handle that?" Grrrrrrrrrrr, that's not how this old warhorse works. And some of his very best work -- Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, J. Edgar -- has been accomplished after he turned 70. For the most part, he still kind of knows what he's doing.

Eastwood scored some points, and they weren't all during his first half. Recalling Obama's "Hope and Change" acceptance speech four years earlier, he said, "Everybody's crying. Oprah was crying. I was even crying. I haven't cried that hard since I found out that there's 23 million unemployed people in this country. Now that is something to cry for."

The empty chair gambit sort of worked at first. "I'm not gonna shut up. It's my turn," he told "Obama" to big applause from the Republican faithful.

But then it got more than a little too coarse: "What do you want me to tell Romney? I can't tell him to do that. He can't do that to himself. You're absolutely crazy. You're gettin' as bad as (Vice President Joe) Biden. 'Course we all know Biden is the intellect of the Democratic Party. Just kind of a grin with a body behind it."

The slap at Biden in actuality was no worse than what the late Ann Richards said about George H. W. Bush at the 1988 Democratic convention: "Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth." The crowd roared then, too.

Eastwood got back on track by saying he didn't like the idea of attorneys being president. "A stellar businessman" -- namely Romney -- would be far better equipped. Lawyers just muck things up.

But then came another ham-handed anatomical reference. Eastwood knows all about cutting room floors -- and that's where this one also should have landed.

He finished stronger than many people will choose to remember. "You, we. We own this country," Eastwood said with conviction. "Politicians are employees of ours. When somebody does not do the job, we gotta let 'em go."

That got the biggest response of the night -- at least in terms of Eastwood's speech --- before he finally bowed to a renewed chant of "Make My Day."

"I'll start it. You finish it," he said. Which he did. And they did.

Then came Florida senator Marco Rubio. He rather blandly restored some prototypical decorum before introducing Romney. But how many viewers really heard much of what he said. How many instead were still buzzing about Eastwood's live wire act?

A couple more points about ABC, CBS and NBC. Does anyone really think they would have sat still for those Mormon testimonies to Romney's essential goodness? These were terrific little stories from people unaccustomed to being in the spotlight. But the sight of elderly Ted and Pat Oparowski immediately would have put all three networks off their feed. Broadcast networks don't do old anymore. They undoubtedly would have filled that portion of their prime-time windows with commercials or blab from their anchors, analysts and reporters.

The Romney biographical film would have been a crapshoot. In the past, some broadcast networks have boycotted such films as propaganda -- or at best joined them in progress. Some also have aired them in full. It's varied from convention to convention on ABC, CBS and NBC. There are no guarantees.

No network -- either broadcast or cable -- was about to turn away from Dirty Harry, though. He commanded everyone's attention. And from this viewpoint, a lot of everyday Americans lapped it all up. As did a majority of convention delegates -- or so it seemed.

And what do you think some of the younger ones are going to tell their grandchildren a generation from now? It's not going to be, "I was there when they played the Mitt Romney film." Or "Let me tell you about the time I heard Marco Rubio speak at the Republican convention."

No, their takeaway is Clint Eastwood -- now and many years from now. We supposedly live for these moments. And then when they happen, a lot of media types wonder how such a thing could happen.

Hey, this has been a helluva lot of fun to write. Thanks, Clint. Appreciate it. But you probably shouldn't try this again.