Washington (CNN) — Moments after the energetic Madonna entertained fans during the halftime show at Sunday’s Super Bowl, millions of television viewers got an emotional jolt back into reality.
The imagery was powerful: Stern faces of workers and families in Detroit, aged plants rumbling back to work, a city resiliently fighting back from the devastating slump of the auto industry.
The familiar, sandpaper voice of actor Clint Eastwood spoke in the background: “It’s halftime. Both teams are in their locker rooms discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half.”
“It’s halftime in America, too,” continued the 81-year-old producer and director. “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.”
But amid the close-up shots of factory workers and black-and-white photos of Midwest families, were there subtle, political undertones in the two-minute Chrysler commercial? Some political watchers think so.
The narrator seemed to speak directly to today’s political climate: “The fog, division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead.”
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Late Monday, Eastwood said any implication of politics was baseless.
“…There is no spin in that ad. On this I am certain,” Eastwood said in a statement to Fox News late Monday night. “I am certainly not politically affiliated with Mr. Obama. It was meant to be a message about job growth and the spirit of America. I think all politicians will agree with it. … If Obama or any other politician wants to run with the spirit of that ad, go for it.”
The commercial, shown to more than 111 million Americans watching the game Sunday and which has since received more than 550,000 views on YouTube by Monday evening, was similar to last year’s Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler featuring rapper and Detroit native Eminem.
Shortly after the ad ran, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer sent a tweet: “Saving the America Auto Industry: Something Eminem and Clint Eastwood can agree on.”
Media critic Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times quickly tweeted: “As Clint Eastwood hails a Detroit that’s up and fighting again in Chrysler ad, is Repub indirectly endorsing auto industry saver Obama?”
Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin jumped in on Twitter with her take: “Agh. WTH? Did I just see Clint Eastwood fronting an auto bailout ad??? #SuperBowl”
The government bailouts
Back in 2010, the nation was still reeling from the recent recession, and Detroit had hemorrhaged more than 300,000 jobs since 2005 — the region’s unemployment rate was as high as 16.6% in 2009. And at 9.7% today, it is still among the worse in the nation.
The Bush administration had initiated a program in 2008 — later implemented by the Obama administration — that provided $60 billion to help bail out the struggling auto industry.
Chrysler, now partially owned by Italian automaker Fiat, went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and received $12.5 billion in government bailouts while General Motors got a $50 billion bailout while giving the government a 60.8% stake in the company. Ford did not receive federal bailout support.
Chrysler and GM have since paid back their loans.
Those auto industry bailouts have been a central theme of this year’s presidential race. Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has lashed out at President Barack Obama’s efforts on behalf of automakers. In a 2008 New York Times op-ed, titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” the former Massachusetts governor said that Detroit should “go bankrupt” instead of receiving federal funds.
“If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye,” said Detroit-born Romney in the piece he wrote just after Obama was elected in 2008. “It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.”
CEO: Ad had ‘zero political content’
Those involved with Sunday’s Super Bowl commercial said the optimism portrayed on screen was sincere. Chrysler Group Chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne told WJR radio in Detroit on Monday that Eastwood’s words were his own, and that he is donating his fee to charity.
“He felt really deeply everything he said,” said Marchionne. “There was not a single doubt in my mind when he spoke in the commercial that he was expressing his views.”
But he pushed back on allegations that the ad had political motives.
“It had zero political content,” added the CEO, whose company posted a $225 million profit in the fourth quarter. “God knows I can’t stop anybody from associating themselves with the message, but it was not intended to be any type of political overture on our part.”
“The message is sufficiently universal and neutral that it should be appealing to everybody in this country, and I sincerely hope that it doesn’t get utilized politically as fodder in a debate,” said Marchionne, who revealed that the commercial was still in production as late as last Monday.
Was it ‘payback’ from the auto industry?
Still, some political pundits dismissed any election-year undertones, pointing to the emotional tug of the commercial and how it resonated with the average viewer — and voter.
“It’s certainly not a pro-Obama commercial; it’s a car commercial,” Republican strategist Mary Matalin told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.”
But others saw the ad as “payback” from an auto industry that benefited from the billions in Bush and Obama administration largesse.
“I was frankly offended by it,” former Bush political adviser Karl Rove told Fox News. “It is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics and the President of the United States and political minions are in essence using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising and the best wishes of the management which has benefited by getting a bunch of our money that they’ll never pay back.”
Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, told CNN’s “John King, USA”: “Chrysler got the bailout money, and now they’re doing this ad. … A lot of people have a problem with it.”
“I thought it was a very effective ad,” countered Democratic strategist Donna Brazile on Monday on “The Situation Room.”
“At some point, we need to stop making everything political. … So I thought it was a very effective piece, and I’m sorry Karl didn’t like it.”
Eastwood the politician
Eastwood, the former mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea in northern California, is a registered Republican and was even briefly considered to be a vice presidential possibility under George H.W. Bush, according to former Bush campaign chairman and Secretary of State James Baker in tapes released by the Bush Presidential Library Foundation. (Bush later selected Dan Quayle as his VP).
The “Dirty Harry” actor also served on the California State Park and Recreation Commission under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, even though he supported rival Democrat Gov. Gray Davis, who was recalled in 2003.
According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Eastwood has donated to Republican and Democratic political candidates, giving $2,300 to Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain in 2008.
On camera, Eastwood echoed what may be a burgeoning view as the country tries to emerge from the worst economic climate since the Great Depression.
“That’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, we’ll make one.”
As the music builds, Eastwood’s face dominates the frame. “Yea, it’s halftime in America. And our second half is about to begin.”
Fade to black. Then, one line of simple text:
“Imported from Detroit.”