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Was Clint Eastwood a disaster or a coup?

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Actor Clint Eastwood addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Actor Clint Eastwood addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Charles Dharapak, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Pundits on the left reacted to Clint Eastwood's rambling, seemingly incoherent skit in Tampa last week with almost uniform bemusement.

Typical was Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post, who wrote that Eastwood "slowed the momentum" for the Romney team and "did everything but stick to any sort of script that would have given the audience a shot at understanding whatever point he was trying to make."

Bill Maher was the rare exception on the left. “As a performer," Maher said, "as a stand-up comedian for 30 years who knows how hard it is to get laughs, excuse me, he went up there … without a net, on a tightrope. There was no teleprompter. He did a bit with just an empty chair and killed. He committed to it, it was consistent and it worked.”

Maybe the best indicator that Eastwood had drawn blood was when the president, or whoever manages his twitter account, tweeted a photo of the president sitting in the presidential chair at a cabinet meeting with his trademark ears visible over the back. "This seat's taken," he added.

The initial reaction on the right was uncertain. Where most Democrats were predisposed to dislike Eastwood's offering, Republican pundits had more at stake and many were initially unsure what to think.

Wisconsin Governor Scott walker said he "cringed" during the speech, according to National Journal.

Some continued to question whether it made sense to use so much valuable prime time for Eastwood. On Friday, Ann Romney told CBS that she wished the campaign had used a potent video about Mitt in that slot instead. "Yes I do wish more people had seen those touching moments," she said.

But gradually over the next few days a halting consensus emerged that Eastwood, while not optimal, may have been unexpectedly and oddly effective.

"Eastwood’s appearance will do nothing to amuse those who take their politics too seriously," wrote David Harsanyi at Human Events, "but he certainly lightened up what is by nature an artificial and highly-scripted event. No, Eastwood didn’t lay out an eloquent, bullet-point argument against Barack Obama’s economic policies; what he did was convey a prevalent sentiment in nonpartisan language that a lot of people who don’t care much about politics understand."

William Gavin at National Review called it "utterly bizarre, totally mesmerizing, unintentionally hilarious, horrifying and wonderful at the same time, like a brief scene from one of those absurdist plays they used to write in the 1960s."

"All this, his geezer stutterings and mutterings, the over-80 frailness, combined with his undeniable, inescapable charisma which we have watched for 50 years or so — just an unexpected gift, magnificent, inhabiting a different time-space continuum from that of Republican delegates and Mitt Romney (who delivered a good speech very well)," Gavin concluded.

Jonah Goldberg argued that the buzz was drawing people in to hear criticisms of Obama, and "the simple fact that Clint Eastwood felt comfortable riffing about how Obama’s got to go, has to help others get over that psychological barrier — which was a big theme of the whole convention — is a significant cultural breakthrough."

Powerline’s Scott Johnson "thought it was funny throughout and hilarious in parts. It was interesting. It was real. It was unscripted. It was ingenious. It had an air of authentic unpredictability about it. It looked like a high-wire act without a net. And it packed a punch."

At Richocet, Mollie Hemmingway reported from Colorado that on the street people were reacting very positively to Eastwood, which is, she said, "almost like being in a different country" from the Beltway pundit class.

"OK, so I'm not going to say that this wasn't a weird speech," Hemmingway wrote. "It was delightfully weird. But it was also effective among non-D.C. types. He mocked Obama and accused him of things — hypocrisy, incompetence, mismanagement of wars and terrorism. He also went after the entire political charade — right there in the middle of the GOP convention! The way politicians just say things to get elected. He told us all - whether we're Democrats or Republicans or libertarians, that we all can come together to get rid of Team Obama."

Even prim former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, usually a hard sell who rarely pulls punches on her own side, approved.

"Clint Eastwood was funny, endearing — 'Oprah was crying' — and carries his own kind of cultural authority," Noonan wrote. "'It's time for somebody else to come along and solve the problem.' He was free-form, interesting — you didn't quite know what was going to come next — strange and, in the end, kind of exhilarating. Talk about icons. The crowd yelling, 'Make my day,' was one of the great convention moments, ever."

The pro-Eastwood consensus on the right seems to be that in his halting, disjointed manner and disheveled hair, Eastwood evoked Peter Falk's Columbo — hunched over and mumbling in a rumpled raincoat to appear harmless and out of touch, but then turning back at the last moment and saying, "Just one more thing" before springing the trap.

It is still far too early to tell, but if Noonan and her ilk turn out to be right, Eastwood's performance may go down as a classic moment of disconnection between the elites and the streets.

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.