Roving Eastwood: Offense on Superbowl Sunday

My father is from Detroit. Even though I am born and raised in Ohio, I grew up rooting for Detroit sports teams, especially the Tigers and the Lions. I would spend as much as three weeks each summer in Detroit, splitting time between my paternal grandparents, who divorced before I was born. While I have never lived there, Detroit is a special place to me. And my family has strong ties to the automotive industry: My paternal grandfather’s second wife, a woman I always considered my grandmother, worked at Ford Tractor for over 30 years.

So as Dad and I sat on the couch this past Sunday, sipping Guinness and eating the most delectable chili I think my father has ever cooked, it was with amazement that we viewed Clint Eastwood’s now famous Chrysler ad. We both remarked on the positive message and artistry of the commercial, and spoke about going next fall to see our Lions play at Ford Field.

I was taken aback, however, when the next day I heard Karl Rove say that he was “offended” by the ad. Rove, who is responsible for some of the most dirty and reprehensible political attacks in modern American politics,[1] said: “I was, frankly, offended by it. I’m a huge fan of Clint Eastwood, I thought it was an extremely well-done ad, but it is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.”[2] White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, responding to the claims, has made it clear that the Administration had nothing to do with the ad.[3] Common sense could have led up to this conclusion. Clint Eastwood is a well-known conservative; he was mayor of Carmel, California, and at one time George H.W. Bush considered placing him on the presidential ticket, hoping to recapture some of the conservative Hollywood magic delivered by President Reagan.[4] Eastwood himself has made it clear that he is no fan of President Obama, and that the ad was not politically motivated.[5] So the idea that this this “liberal Hollywood” taking up the charge of the liberal president just won’t hold. And Rove is smart enough to know this, so he uses another tactic.

Rove claims that Chrysler has not paid back its loan, thereby intimating that there is not a “real” success story here, or that the automotive industry is akin to the Wall Street firms that were bailed out and then issued record bonuses without repaying their own debt. In truth, Chrysler has repaid $10.6 billion of its original $12.5 billion dollar loan. While Rove may complain that this is not a full repayment—and he would be correct—the fact is Chrysler has repaid all of the money provided under the Obama Administration (about $4 billion dollars was lent by the Bush Administration).[6] Now certainly, this is splitting hairs, and a reasonable person could argue that the first money lent should be the first money repaid. If this is the case, there is still about $1.9 billion outstanding, not a paltry sum, and it falls to the current president to recoup the funds. With that acknowledged, Rove’s claim fits into a larger game: He is attempting to inflict political amnesia on the American people, associating the “auto bailout” with only the Obama Administration. This seems odd, given that GM and Chrysler are back on top, in terms of sales, production, and stock prices.[7] Why is the loan to American car companies still seen as such a horrible sin? Do we object to growing numbers of automotive jobs? Is an increase in consumer confidence about American cars something to lament? What is more American than an ad about the reemergence of American cars owed to the efforts of the American people airing during America’s greatest single sporting event?

Regardless of the differences that Mr. Rove and I may have concerning the wisdom of the auto bailout—especially given the two wars that were started during Mr. Rove’s tenure in the White House which contributed greatly to the country’s current deficit, money that can never be “repaid”—I must say that his use of language seems misplaced and, if I may be so bold, hypocritical. Karl Rove is among those contemporary Republican voices yearning for the time of Ronald Reagan. To wit, through the first ten debates in 2011, the 4othpresident’s name was mentioned 53 times.[8] While there are myriad reasons Republicans invoke the memory of Reagan—appreciation for economic policies, military strength, foreign policy positions—today the prevailing message seems to focus on the optimism of Reagan. For example, at a debate in Florida former candidate Jon Huntsman (R-Utah) waxed nostalgic about Reagan: “I like those days when Ronald Reagan…would ensure that the light of this country would shine brightly for liberty, democracy, human rights, and free markets. We’re not shining like we used to shine. We need to shine again.” Based on Karl Rove’s appreciation for Reagan’s optimism, one could assume that the offending ad calls Americans a bunch of lazy, fat, indifferent slobs. Or even worse, includes an insult to Ronald Reagan.

But such is not the case. Clint Eastwood, in classic Dirty Harry fashion, growls, “It’s halftime in America, too. People are out of work, and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re gonna do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared because this isn’t a game. The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again.” What, exactly, is offensive here? Is it Eastwood celebrating the ongoing recovery of one of the most hard-hit, economically depressed cities in the country, that so stokes the ire of Mr. Rove? What, pray tell, could offend Mr. Rove about the optimism and celebration of strength voiced in the ad, which rightly declares that this great country cannot be knocked out by one punch?

Karl Rove has now found himself in the curious position of denouncing an ad which is meant to rally the American spirit and encourage optimism, Reagan’s most celebrated quality. [9]

Well, I’ll tell you what offends me, Mr. Rove: Corporations being given rights to unlimited speech when an independent filmmaker is arrested at the U.S. Capitol Building at the request of Republican lawmakers.[10] I’m insulted by how, as a result of the Citizens United decision,[11] your Super-PACs American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS are able to fill our airwaves with factually shaky ads, while you are legally protected from disclosing the sources of your contributions. And, honestly, Mr. Rove. If we are going to talk about being offended, let’s be serious. I am offended that children go hungry in this country; I am offended that the reproductive rights of women are under increasing assault. I am offended that the cost of a college education–which you never bothered to complete–now means that a growing number of people in my generation are saddled with debts we may never repay. I am offended that certain Christians claim to be a minority under assault, while at the same time persecution of and violence against LGBT persons continues at alarming rates. I am offended by the loss of statesmanship in this country, by how politics has become an out growth of professional wrestling. And while I readily admit that I like to spend my free time watching classic rasslin’, I like to leave it to the in-shape professionals and not our elected officials. American politics should not be WWE, but it has descended to such a level.

To me, Rove being offended boils down to this: It seems that an American car company cannot be patriotic. Or a conservative cannot take part in an ad celebrating the recovery of the automotive industry because political forces such as Karl Rove regard it as apostasy to party loyalty. It never ceases to amaze me how many times the words “liberty” and “freedom” are bandied about in GOP politics—generally as a way of intimating that we no longer have either—yet “freedom” and “liberty” don’t include the right to acknowledge a reality: Chrysler is back, and our country is trying to recover. That is not a partisan message, it is a sentiment that we all need to hear. We have gone through one of the most trying periods in American history—the most trying in my lifetime—and while we have not yet emerged completely, things are getting better. I think Ronald Reagan would approve of this optimism, regardless of policy opinions.

[1] For a full accounting, see James Moore, Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential. The documentary film of the same name is also worth a view.