During a typically animated Super Bowl party in suburban Chicago Sunday, the chatter came to an abrupt halt when that trademark voice-in an urgent, raspy whisper-knifed through the air in its quiet, compelling way.
Suddenly, all eyes turned to the television screen flashing soft images of an industrial America that had been pushed to the brink only to claw its way back, in Clint Eastwood's words, because America "knows how to come from behind to win." Sounding like the weary but determined character from a tough Detroit neighborhood (a role he played in "Gran Torino"), Eastwood's tone turned defiant.
"This country can't be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again, and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines." The commercial, "Halftime in America," didn't reveal its sponsor until the final seconds, when Chrysler logos appeared briefly, but it has already become a classic, and perhaps inevitably in this election year, a political football.
White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer weighed in on Twitter, "Saving the American Auto Industry: Something Eminem and Clint Eastwood can agree on." (Eminem's Chrysler commercial was a huge hit last Super bowl.) The conservative blogger Michel Malkin fumed, "Did I just see Clint Eastwood fronting an auto bailout ad?"
Chrysler, like General Motors, was headed for the junk heap before the Bush and Obama administrations rode to the rescue with $12.5 billion from U.S. taxpayers. Now, both are roaring back from near death-hiring workers and posting strong profits. In January, the American auto industry put the pedal to the metal, selling cars at the fastest pace in nearly four years. (Chrysler has repaid all but $1.3 billion.)
Ironically enough, Eastwood-the former Republican mayor of Carmel, Calif., opposed the bailout, telling the Los Angeles Times in 2010: "We shouldn't be bailing out the banks and car companies. If a CEO can't figure out how to make his company profitable, then he shouldn't be the CEO."
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also opposed using government money to help the American automakers, famously penning an op-ed in the New York Times entitled, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." Now Romney says he favored a "structured bankruptcy" using private funds. But former Obama administration car czar Steven Rattner, who supervised the bailout, tells ABC News that such a solution was impossible during the credit crisis of 2008-2009 because only the government was willing or able to provide financing.
But Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne insists that presidential politics had nothing to do with Eastwood's Chrysler commercial. "It has zero political content," Marchionne told Detroit radio station WJR. "We are as apolitical as you can make us." Instead, he says, the ad was intended as a tribute to the employees of Chrysler and resonated "because it says something…about the resilience of America."
Italy's Fiat SpA now owns a majority of Chrysler.