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You Don't Tell Clint Eastwood To Stay On The Teleprompter

Kind of like the time I tried to talk Billy Crystal out of a Jewish joke. Celebrities are impossible to control.

Posted on August 31, 2012, at 9:33 a.m. ET

You may be wondering how in God’s name the Romney campaign allowed Clint Eastwood to have his way at last night’s GOP convention, and ad-lib an insane conversation with a chair.

The answer is likely one of two things:

First, because they so rarely have their support, Republicans may not fully get how fraught with peril letting celebrities speak at political events can be. By contrast, Democrats are used to working with Hollywood types at events — and know the degree to which egos must be managed, rhetorical flourishes controlled, and inane calamity anticipated.

So perhaps the Romney folks were simply caught off guard and miscalculated.

The other possibility is that they tried to appeal to Mr. Eastwood before he went on, and he was simply obstinate. “So what,” you might be saying. “Stand up, and tell him to do what you want!”

This makes perfect sense. And yet, it may not be as simple as you think. I did a brief turn as a celebrity handler on the Hillary Clinton campaign, and it is at times an impossible task.

It was October 26, 2007, and I was a campaign spokesman for Clinton, responsible for making sure a fundraising extravaganza in New York honoring the candidate’s birthday received favorable coverage.

I received a frenzied call from campaign headquarters minutes before show-time, frantically informing me of a rumor that: 1) As part of his act that night as emcee, comedian Billy Crystal was planning to lampoon our rival Rudy Giuliani; and 2) Said joke apparently would have some sort of Jewish-related hook.

Knowing that a joke criticizing another candidate too harshly (with ethnic undertones, no less) would garner far more attention than any policy discussion the campaign might engage in that week, it was decided there was only one option: I would need to barge into the green room, immediately track down American’s favorite nebbish, and prevent a PR crisis.

Only, this wasn’t your mother’s Billy Crystal I would encounter backstage.

As if it wasn’t awkward enough having to confront a comic legend about his set-list moments before he took the stage, the inquiry was taking place in full view of the entire green room — where political luminaries like Bill Clinton and Terry McAuliffe availed themselves of carrot sticks and dip, and performers like Elvis Costello and the WallFlowers puffed away on cigarettes.

“Um, Billy, would you mind telling us the Rudy joke, just to make sure it doesn’t cause any problems?” I asked lightly, trying my best to keep it calm and cool.

After staring at me in silent disbelief for what seemed like the duration of Forget Paris, the comic legend finally responded, reciting the joke’s punch-line with a deliberate, peeved monotone: “This is the craziest thing that’s happened since Ann Coulter started keeping kosher.”

That didn’t seem so bad, I thought. “What’s the set-up?”

“What’s the set-up?” he barked back at me. “What? This conversation isn’t happening!”

“No, we just…”

“You’re asking me to run the set-up of my joke by you?”

At this point, he was seething.

As if to underscore the absurdity of the situation, Crystal repeated the question again, summoning equal parts rage and incredulity: “You are asking me what my set-up is?!”

Understandably annoyed that some shmuck from the campaign was asking him to run jokes by him minutes before a free performance, the perennial back-up Oscars host was now in my face, staring me down. “You want to get me angry right before I start the show?” (At that moment, I began to sympathize with the title character in Throw Momma From the Train.)

Fortunately, just as the avuncular pop culture icon began pacing, the only man in America who could possibly smooth the tension, cut in and saved the day.

“Hey man, serious question,” Bill Clinton said to me. “Is there a bathroom around here?”

Sensing my cue, I scurried out and headed to my seat, convinced I’d ruined the event, and that a week’s worth of bad press would rain down on the campaign and damage the candidate’s chances.

In the end, my fears were not realized: the event went fine, Crystal edited the joke (final version: “Did you hear Rudy Giuliani told New Hampshire voters he roots for the Red Sox now? This is the worst idea since his combover!”), and we evaded a week’s worth of sensational news stories about a prominent Clinton supporter attacking Giuliani with ethnic jokes.

The point? Stars have minds of their own and can be difficult to control. If getting a 5’6” comic to modify his remarks before an event was this tough, imagine trying to tell stubborn, old Dirty Harry to stick to the Teleprompter.

Blake Zeff, a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and former aide to Senator Chuck Schumer and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, is a BuzzFeed contributor. You can follow him on Twitter at @BlakeZeff.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.