Why our politicians’ private lives matter

At the G20 summit last November, Obama and then French president, Sarkozy, were having a chat. The Israeli Prime Minister came up in conversation.

“I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar”, said Sarkozy, to which Obama replied, “You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day!”

The problem with the conversation was that their mikes were on. A couple of journalists heard the whole thing. Instead of rushing to their editor with their enormous scoop, they stayed quiet in the belief that this was a private conversation which would be damaging to report.

Nothing was said for a few days until the French website Arret sur Images published their remarks. As soon as international journalists got wind of the interchange, it went global and the mainstream French media reported it too.

image source: privateinvestigations.blogspot.at

The media treatment of the exchange triggered an important discussion: what matters to the public and what doesn’t and how entwined are the public and private lives of our politicians?

In all walks of life, the idea that our private and professional selves are separate entities is a myth. Our behaviour might differ from one situation to another but our values do not.

Research suggests that people vote for politicians based more on their personalities than on their policies. They do so in the reasonable belief that the two are unlikely to be widely removed from each other.

Political decisions, like any other are made on the spur of the moment, and under the influence of powerful personalities. If your leader is more eager to be liked than to do what’s right, it matters. If they are impulsive or inexpressive or icy, it will affect their governance. Personality counts.

Since it’s the first responsibility of a politician to act on their values, their behaviour outside of work cannot be logically divorced from the decisions they make on the job.

Take for example Dominique Strauss Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund. Notwithstanding the allegations of sexual harassment against him, which have been well-documented by the media, he’s admitted to several affairs and to attending lavish parties featuring naked girls, who may or may not have been prostitutes. Strauss Kahn chose the institution of marriage and failed to live up to its requirements. Assuming that values do not change fundamentally from one situation to the other, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to question his commitment to other institutions, such as the IMF and the state of France, to which he also pledged allegiance.

Whether or not such speculation is justified, the more we learn about the kinds of people our politicians are outside of work, the more sophisticated our interpretations of their motivations and performance become.

While some might suggest that such a hunger for private lives only encourages the cultivation of a “public” personality, to assume that this wasn’t already the case would be naive. Furthermore, the challenge for journalists is to convey the personality of a politician as it is, not necessarily as he or she would like it to be.

The media have a choice to make between objectifying and subjectifying. Objectifying is talking about Hillary Clinton’s bum, while subjectifying is telling us how her mouth twitched when her daughter failed a maths test.

The future of journalism is uncertain: the overwhelming speed at which news now travels has eliminated much of what the job used to entail.

There is a new opportunity though and it requires us to slow down, to reflect and to write with insight rather than haste.

Demanding of our journalists to be emotionally astute as well as politically sharp will lead to a more complex picture of what is anything but a straightforward job: making decisions that affect millions of lives and the future of our planet.

Journalism may sustain its integrity into the future by maintaining a fine balance between the personal and the political. When it comes to reporting from the private realm, it must replace sensationalism with psychological realism.

It’s what’s missing in the constantly updated, hyper-evolving virtual media landscape.

Unless we begin to privilege the mundane everyday, politicians will stay “out of touch” with it, and the public will continue to see them as little more than worn out political machines; inanimate and inept.

So if Enda Kenny announces that he’s turned vegan, Eamonn Gilmore squabbles with his neighbour about the position of a garden fence or Joan Burton runs off with her secretary, I want to hear about it.

When Dublin Meets Berlin

There was a delay on one of the underground lines in Berlin a few weeks ago because a homeless man had fallen asleep on the tracks. Security personnel rushed to the scene and the man was woken up. Bewildered, he growled at the passengers staring at him. He was escorted off the platform but it all took time. There was a short delay before service resumed.

Meanwhile, a public announcement had urged passengers to take alternative routes. I got on another train which would take me close to where I needed to go. Sitting opposite me were two little girls, aged about nine and eleven, who had also been waiting for the first train. We’d barely been on the second for five minutes when it was announced that “Service has now resumed on the U8.”

The smaller of the girls pursed her lips and shook her head, disgusted. “What an absolute joke,” she said. “Why didn’t they announce that it would only take five minutes to clear the line?” The other rolled her eyes and sighed. “This kind of thing is always occurring. It’s a farce.”

My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. First of all, the transport system in Berlin is the single best I have ever encountered. And second, here were two tiny German girls complaining about bad service in language so adult and earnest that it was comical.

This, I thought is the difference between the Germans and the Irish.

I imagined a similar situation in Ireland, where a conversation might have gone like this: “Jaysus, the poor fella. Did you get a look at him? Lucky somebody saw him and he wasn’t driven over … Jaysus! Sure we’ll be fashionably late. It’ll be grand sure. We’ve a story to tell.”

As our economy wilts and theirs prospers, it’s worth examining what makes the Germans German and the Irish Irish. I’m in a rather convenient position to do so, being half of each.

People here tell me that when I begin to complain habitually about everything, I can be called a “Berliner.”

Complaining in Germany, as in Ireland is a national hobby. The difference here is that complaints are taken seriously.

The reason that complaints are taken seriously is that responsibility is too. When you go to a ticket vendor or to buy a hot dog, you’re served with the same level of attention as you are in a bank or a lawyer’s office.

Some time ago, I was working on a story about low wage workers and got talking to a middle-aged woman selling hot dogs on the street. “I take my job seriously,” she told me, after she spoke perfect English while serving some American tourists. “I want people to enjoy their food.” She was earning about six euro an hour and was finding it hard to make ends meet.

Sincerity too is an integral part of the German mindset. If you say “We must meet up for a coffee. I’ll give you a call in the next couple of days,” it means that you will certainly arrange a date within three working days.

Shortly after I moved into my apartment, I made my flatmate dinner. It was vegetarian Shephard’s Pie and I was worried that it hadn’t turned out well. As we sat down to eat it, he took a few mouthfuls and said nothing. I was nervous. Perhaps it wasn’t to his taste. I waited for a while and then tentatively asked whether the food was alright.

“It’s delicious,” he said.
“Then why didn’t you say anything?” I cried.
“Well I had to wait to taste it properly,” he said. “It would have been insincere to say it was nice straightaway.”

I thought about that for a long time.

While the Germans are responsible, reliable and sincere, the Irish are compassionate, humorous and wily.

When my parents visited me recently, they were a little slow in buying their train ticket at the machine. A woman in her twenties standing behind cursed at them and shoved them out of the way. I would like to think that in Ireland, she would have given them a hand. For all its Celtic Tiger madness, Ireland has remained a place, where, as my mother so nicely puts it, “eejits and eccentrics are well tolerated.”

Before I moved to Berlin, my boyfriend made me a mix tape which included two anthems to remind me of home. One of them is the speech Enda Kenny made to welcome Barack Obama to the country and the other is the lament, with mandolin accompaniment, performed by Joe Duffy following Thiery Henri’s handball in 2009, which crushed Ireland’s dream of qualifying for the World Cup.

The latter is ridiculous and hilarious and features lines such as “Will You be Out of Favour To Sell Gillette Razors?” and “It’s a pity for the South African nation without us at their world celebration.” Enda’s speech on the other hand, is so full of passion and pride that it’s hard not to feel a pang of affection for the little nation, which despite falling to pieces, has still managed to maintain a healthy dose of national pride.

While the Irish might champion mediocrity, they do it with charm. Ireland is like the child in the psychological experiment that gobbled up the single marshmallow, despite knowing that if it had waited, it would have received two. Germany is the child that waits for the second marshmallow but wonders whether, by the same principle, it would make more sense to continue to wait rather than to enjoy the two already gained.

The Irish are wily and endearingly naive. We wouldn’t quite call ourselves dishonest but we’d settle on being creative with the truth: the stuff of brown envelopes, dodgy property deals, shifty politicians and the Catholic Church. On the other hand, it’s also the kind of opportunistic cleverness that bagged Enda a meeting with the Chinese Vice President last February, made Jedward into national icons and allows some to hold fast to the belief that we really, really, really can win the Euros.

If we could learn accountability and responsibility from the Germans and teach them to kick back and remember that everything – probably will be grand in the end – we’d both be better off. Instead, they’ll be bailing us out for decades and we’ll be telling jokes to numb the pain.

Enda Kenny: The teacher that Ireland needs?

If Ireland loves an underdog story, it has all it could wish for in Taoiseach Enda Kenny. In less than a year, he has gone from leader of an opposition party whom nine members of his front bench did not support to heading a government party with an approval rating of 41%.

Resilience, tenacity and no small amount of luck have been the hallmarks of his success.

Though his entry into the Dáil at age 24 may have been facilitated by the vacancy of his late father’s seat, his rise in that chamber came gradually and faced its fair share of setbacks.

He spent nearly 10 years on the opposition benches and failed to be promoted when Garret Fitzgerald became Taoiseach in 1981 and 1982. In 2001 when John Bruton resigned leadership of the party following a vote of no confidence, Kenny contested the leadership unsuccessfully. The following year, when Fine Gael suffered its worst ever electoral performance, he was reported to have prepared a concession speech in anticipation of losing his seat, though he did in fact manage to take the third of five seats in his constituency.

Enda Kenny’s strength lies considerably less in his rhetoric than in its tone. He can inject equal measures of passion into expressing indignation at Fianna Fáil’s “crippling government” and pride at Ireland’s “performance” on the world stage during the recent state visits.

And of course he’s had serendipity on his side too. Not only did he replace the least popular government in Ireland’s history but he has also hosted impeccably staged visits from the two most important heads of state, from Ireland’s perspective.

Kenny himself describes his leadership as teacherish. In fact the four years he spent working as a primary school teacher (before he was elected to Dáil Eireann at only 24) would have entitled him to draw a pension of €100,000 in April of this year, having in his own words “simply being paying into it” since his excedingly premature retirement.

Though it has been thirty-six years since Enda Kenny taught the times tables, his performance in office thus far indicates that his politico-teaching strategy may well be amounting to quite a success.

He told Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show that he intended handing over report cards to his minsiters and made a point of expressing pride in his people’s performance during the state visits. He even went as far as explictly pointing out that not one person had “shamed him” – as if he were a trainee teacher and Ireland his trophy class performing for an inspector. In this way, Kenny espoused the essential quailities of a conscientous teacher: a tendency toward supervision, evauluation and praise when merited. At the same time he let slip the less popular characteristics of didacticism and condescension.

It will take immense ambition and steadiness to reawaken the disillusioned pupil that Ireland has become. But as somebody who has suffered his own setbacks and flings with public opinion, a teacher that genuinely cares could just be what Ireland needs at this time. After a long hiatus, Enda Kenny’s teaching career has now begun in earnest.