Outgoing Taoiseach Brian Cowen must have few friends left in the country at the moment, but amidst all the opprobrium, scorn, and criticism heaped on the beleaguered Taoiseach over the last few years, I think a different side to the leader was entirely missed out on during the media onslaught that has more or less defined his hapless career in politics.
I had two chances to watch the outgoing Taoiseach in action over the past six months. The first was at a swanky function hosted in the Irish Consulate, New York City which was being put on to commemorate a special edition of The Irish Voice commemorating the top 50 Irish-American businesswomen. The second was at a private party function from which journalists were supposed to be excluded from at a local hotel in Cork City.
My abiding impression of the Taoiseach on both occasions was of a very capable and confident politician who commanded respect from his party colleagues he was surrounded by and who was also clearly a capable orator, able to convey complex policy points in simplistic and digestible terms, before leading, on both occasions, to an Obama-style ending which left you convinced, whatever your initial misgivings, that yes, Fianna Fail 'can'. I also spoke to Cowen for a few minutes at the New York function and remember him as being very astute and 'with it'. His parting words to me and the other young interns scoffing down our Consulate's free Guinness for all it was worth (this of course being one of the only surefire ways in life of getting money back from the government), were "be proud and keep representing, lads"; then he took off into the Manhattan night.
Speaking at the Cork function a few months later, Cowen delivered a stirring oration without reference to a single note, unaided by a microphone, and seemingly with little preparation. A hush descended on the crowd of party sympathizers gathered in the Northside Silversprings Hotel as Cowen took to the center of the small function room and delivered a rousing and passionately articulated speech about the possibility for economic and political regeneration under Fianna Fail's leadership, trotting off abstruse employment statistics and facts left, right, and center as if they were Premiership scores, and capturing the crowd with his lively energy. Although he may not have looked the part that day (nor, for that matter, did he ever really look the part) I was more thanimpressed by his sharp memory, eloquent rhetoric, and confident poise, and got a very different impression of him as a politician than I did from the news, caricatures, and criticism which as I said almost singly defined his tenure as Taoiseach.
But why then this very obvious disconnect between the private Cowen talking happily and fluidly among party colleagues and the not so well-liked 'Biffo' (an acronym standing for big, ignorant fec**r from Offaly, ...) who was practically the daily whipping-boy of the Irish press and media? Local Fianna Failers explained to me that Cowen comes across much better at private party functions than he does at larger scale and higher pressure gatherings such as press conferences but this is hardly the stuff that politicians are supposed to be made of. Pressure and hostility are par for the course in politics and if this was the reason that Cowen didn't communicate his ideas well to the general public then he really only has himself to blame, but it's still something worth reflecting on.
That be as it may be, I have no doubt that Cowen presided over a great deal of incompetency during his tenure as Taoiseach, but there's still something in the incessant and overwhelming criticism from all quarters of the Irish media and public that leaves me a little bit suspicious to say the least. One man along cannot single-handedly have ruined an entirely country and to say that the whole thing reeks of scape-goating and McCarthyism is, I believe, an understatement.
Cowen undoubtedly committed a lot of errors in his running what has become a now broken and bankrupt country, many of them surely graves ones, but there was a much more capable, confident, and inspiring side to the man that simply never surfaced to the public eye, that was never broadcast, but was understood and seen to exist by party colleagues, friends, and no doubt also political aides. That may be only his own fault, but I think it's a pity that that shining confidence, capability and leadership that I saw on those intimate gatherings in New York and North Cork never got a wider airing than that. If it had done, who knows what the outcome could have been and how different a situation we would have found ourselves in today.