On arrival at Aras an Uachtarain I was struck by Obama the Showman, as he yelled to the assembled media “Good morning, how are you all doing?” But perhaps he was just doing what many Americans do naturally – oozing confidence and informality.
His trip to Moneygall, which was one of those towns you sped through on your way between Dublin and Limerick and were never tempted to stop, was different. Here I thought he was most himself. Clearly relaxed and seemingly very taken with the fact that his third great grandfather (who rejoiced in the very unlikely Irish name of Falmouth) had come from this little town. He was in no hurry as he held babies, received hugs and shook what looked every hand in the town.
Then he adjourned to the pub in the usual piece of staged PR for Diageo. Like Clinton before him – he drank the Guinness, waving it towards the photographers and roaring Slainte! Then it was back to Dublin for his speech to the Irish. I was someone who stayed up into the small hours to watch him being elected in 2008. I am a big fan and so was tempted to go into the city to listen to this man who carries not only the hope of Americans but of the free world with him.
But having braved thousands in Dun Laoghaire for the Red Bull Flopfest the previous day, I’d had enough of crowds and so decided to watch from my sofa instead. As I listened I kept waiting to be uplifted. To hear something I could hold onto. To feel that my faith in this man was going to be rewarded with even just an insightful comment which would make it clear that he understood modern Ireland and our current situation. But instead what I got was a speech that seemed to me to have been cobbled together on the flight over, taking more than a little inspiration from both Kennedy and Clinton before him but without the context that both of these predecessors had. Kennedy was addressing a relatively newly independent Ireland and Clinton was marking the Peace Process.
Obama is a consummate communicator and a great performer. There is no doubt about that. But is he a statesman, a visionary, a great leader of our time? Not yet he ain’t. As I watched him on TV, I laughed and smiled and felt good. But within minutes of it ending, I was left feeling pretty unsatisfied. It was like eating a McDonald’s meal – tastes great but shortly afterwards you realize you are still hungry.
This was no visit, official or otherwise. This was a ‘dropping by’ on his way to bigger and more important business in Europe. His few hours in Ireland provided a bit of R&R for all concerned. And the opportunity to tell us we are a great little country who helped build America; a little island who has had its fair share of dark days but who always overcomes adversity. Had no one told him that only a few days beforehand, in her clipped and formal tones, Banrian Eilis a Do had signaled Ireland’s coming of age and along with our own President Mary McAleese set our faces most definitely to the future.
Grown up Ireland should expect far more from the President of the United States, than a photo opportunity with a bloody pint of Guinness and the same old speech telling us we are great. No, there was no vision of Ireland’s role on a world stage, no creativity of thinking, just same ole’, same ole’. Not good enough anymore. No siree. A definite case of could do a whole lot better!
Postscript: There was one highlight of the visit though and this is really for the benefit of my American readers.