If Clint Eastwood narrated “The Cat in the Hat,” the words of Dr. Seuss would instantly take on a menacing authority. He could read the latest worthless United Nations condemnation of Syria and make Bashar Assad tremble.
So if you’re Chrysler and want to air a propagandistic advertisement implicitly touting your government bailout as what’s best about America, Eastwood is a natural frontman. The movie tough-guy and former Republican mayor of Carmel, Calif., will make everyone take notice. He will dare you not to believe him. He will invest a sugarcoated narrative of Detroit’s comeback with every bit of his gravelly voiced credibility.
Eastwood’s two-minute ad during halftime was one of the most memorable of the Super Bowl (putting aside all the Doritos spots, of course). Eastwood walks toward the camera in a dark tunnel and says, in his slightly threatening near-whisper, “It’s halftime.” Lest you think that’s a cue to get up and reload on nachos and beer, he intones, “It’s halftime in America, too.”
What follows is a half-baked tale about the revival of the automotive industry wrapped in economic nationalism: Dirty Harry does chest-thumping corporatism. Eastwood says that Americans are hurting and that “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.”
We all pulled together? As euphemism, this is clever; as history, it is false. Congress never approved the bailouts. Given the option to do so explicitly, it declined. The Bush and Obama administrations acted on their own, diverting TARP funds to Detroit regardless of the letter of the law. In Eastwood’s telling, a legally dubious act of executive highhandedness qualifies as patriotic collective action.
By this standard, any initiative of government must be a stirring exercise in people’s power. Remember when we all pulled together to back the solar-panel maker Solyndra to the tune of $500 million? Right now, we are all pulling together to try to force Catholic institutions to pay for contraceptives and morning-after abortifacients for their employees. See? There’s nothing we can’t do — together.
What Chrysler and GM desperately needed in their extremity was to go through Chapter 11 reorganization to pare down wages and benefits, shed uneconomical dealerships, and ditch unnecessary brands. When the government got its hooks in them, it politicized this process and threw some $80 billion at the companies. Since we’ll never get an estimated $23 billion back, we all must be “pulling together” behind Detroit still.
Amid all the patriotic piety, Eastwood neglects to mention that Chrysler is now 58.5 percent owned by Fiat, an Italian company. The heart-tugging images of Turin, Italy, apparently were left on the cutting-room floor.
Walking near the end of his tunnel, Eastwood assures us of our hoped-for national comeback: “Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And what’s true about them is true about all of us.” Yet if Detroit is the model for our future, we should prepare for national collapse. Yes, it is getting a boost from resurgent auto sales. Otherwise, it remains a byword for urban apocalypse. More than anything, the city is a standing warning of the perils of social disorder and unaffordable, dysfunctional government.
The entire tone of the Eastwood ad is martial. We must resist “discord” and “come together,” we have to take a “punch” and “win.” Understandably, Obama politicos David Axelrod and Dan Pfeiffer immediately tweeted their approval. The ad echoes President Barack Obama’s rhetoric of military-like national unity from his State of the Union address. This message is profoundly at odds with the messy competition and self-interested individual effort necessarily attendant to a true free-market economy.
It is good that Chrysler and GM are now off life-support, but they took a lot of money we’ll never recover. A simple apology would be nice. Surely, Clint Eastwood could be hired to deliver an impressively sincere-sounding one.