Recently, we had the second of four TV debates of our election campaign here in Ireland. They were held live during primetime and received the highest ratings of the year. Strangely, the public anticipation centred less around who would deliver the killer punches, and more about whether our media-shy premier–to-be Enda Kenny could emerge without inflicting too much self-harm.
It struck me, it’s eons away from U.S. President Barack Obama wowing the throngs with his masterful oratory en route to the White House two years ago. Surely his performance would set a marker for election campaigns the world over. Surely such ‘telegeny’ would become a prerequisite for the modern-day political leader. David Cameron’s election seemed to bear out the point.
Well, apparently not, not in Ireland, anyway.
TV debates are an entertainment we’ve borrowed from the states. But rather than embracing them as a platform for peddling his messages to the masses, Mr. Kenny has been avoiding them as best he can (he skipped last week’s debate, curiously citing personal objections to the TV host). In fact, his television appearances generally have been fairly few in number.
So how can you become leader these days if you’re not working the media? Truth is, he’s probably working it well, by staying clear of it. Affable and engaging in person, his on-screen persona comes across as boyish and wooden. Learned and convincing in conversation, on-air he’s likely to come off worst in verbal tussles with his rivals. The man just wasn’t made for TV.
All failings that won’t stop him claiming the top office in the land, it seems. In a world obsessed with image and celebrity, most of it mediated through our television screens, it will be a comforting thought to some that the style doesn’t always subjugate the substance. And that elections are actually played out in the real world, not on television.
For the record, Mr Kenny delivered a faultless, measured performance on screen in the most recent debate. Enough to assuage his anxious handlers, and probably most of the voting public too. But Obama-esque it certainly wasn’t, and the 980,000 viewers will have missed that.