Chuckling Gavin Duffy knew the price of milk but had long lost public’s interest

‘THAT was Gavin Duffy,” came the back announcement from Pat Kenny, mid-morning on Saturday. “Eloquent and generous in defeat”, writes Terry Prone.

Chuckling Gavin Duffy knew the price of milk but had long lost public’s interest

Kenny nailed it. Duffy had been both. Nothing in the presidential campaign became him like the leaving of it. He talked perfect prose. He sounded happy, rather than resigned. He wished “my President and yours, Michael D Higgins” the best.

The problem with post-election comments by the ones who didn’t win or — like Peter Casey — came in a threatening second, is that they are considered necessary, by media, like eating your greens, brushing your teeth and saying Please and thank you, but for the most part, nobody cares, unless the defeated one cries or evinces a frame of mind that is rewardingly bitter and twisted.

Pity. Because in this instance, an indicative contrast might be drawn between Duffy’s final words on the tumbril and those of Casey, if only the tiny ritual point in each interview which dealt with the contribution of the team that had worked with the two candidates throughout.

Neither had to talk about the backroom boys or girls. The defeated can totally ignore their team in their post-factum comments. In truth, sometimes the helpers/minders/advisers pray hard for that to happen, because association with a contender who has, throughout the campaign, been obnoxious or incompetent, or both, may not be good for the career prospects of those associated with them. But sometimes it has been a labour of love, and in that case, the team stand proud, eyes glazed with tears, listening out for the validation of the man or woman with whom they may have spent most waking (and certainly most fraught) hours over the previous three weeks or more. It doesn’t matter to them that listeners other than themselves may not even register what is said during this ritual communication. They cherish the personally-relevant words.

In the post-election interview, Duffy’s team did OK. For starters, he named them individually. That matters and indicates respect for professionals. To go on with, he told the world they had done a great job. He finished this bit of his interview by making it clear that him coming last was his sole responsibility — “as a candidate, I didn’t perform” — and he would take home any blame accruing.

Casey’s excursion into the support team department was quite different. He opened up by announcing his team had only three members in it. (Duffy’s team was the same size.) He didn’t name them. Anonymity was good enough for them.

Then, in his authentic way, he told the interviewer that, at the outset, his three-person team had told him not to run, not to subject himself to the local authority contest. But, you know what? He ignored their advice and won the necessary four nominations. (Pat on the back for Authentic Peter, smack in the kisser for his stupid team.) After he proved them wrong the first time, the team, undeterred in their lack of judgment, told him to get the hell out of the contest before he had to contend with Michael D and the others. But, you know what? He faced them down again, did Authentic Peter, pat on the back for him, smack in the kisser for his cowardly team. And then — but you have the picture.

Mr Authenticity mocks and derides the people closest to him in order to prove to the public he can outdo them in courage and cleverality by lunchtime. Everything with Authentic Peter happens by lunchtime, have you noticed?

But let’s go back to Duffy and compare his “generous, eloquent” defeat interview with what happened earlier. Mainstream and social media united in their horror at Duffy’s interview with Sean O’Rourke. It’s arguable that this interview, with all of its attendant social media comment and condemnation, may have crystallised the public view of this candidate. Whatever he did thereafter was never going to change that decision, although you have to admit that describing Michael D as “a Learjet socialist” wasn’t a bad crack. Didn’t do Michael D any harm, but made even his supporters laugh.

But the Sean O’Rourke interview saw the public decide that Duffy was arrogant and had been caught out. If you listen to the interview again, however, it yields more subtle communications issues. The first is the car crash in his teens, which Duffy wanted to cleverality, as the phrase has it, put it to bed. But because he felt badly about it, it drew him back to it like a magnet. Repeatedly. O’Rourke didn’t torture him with it. He tortured himself with it.

The second communication problem that faced Duffy, uniquely, in this campaign, was his capacity, as a media trainer, to see ‘gotcha’ questions coming. If he had been sufficiently drilled before media appearances, he might have learned to stay on his own side of the net, to simply take the questions as questions rather than commenting on them and resenting them. No point, no matter how silly the question seems to the candidate. Questions about poets and the price of milk derive from a conviction, on the part of the questioner, that the answer will reveal deep-seated clues to the candidate’s character. If that were the case, the fact Duffy was the only one of the six to know the price of milk would have led voters to say “Hah. There’s a man who may be rich, but is grounded and centred and real.” Unfortunately for him, it had no such effect.

The final communications challenge faced by Duffy was, to a certain extent and in a slightly different way, faced by Joan Freeman. They’re both used to being liked and appreciated. It floored Freeman when she was asked a tough question about how statistically effective are the approaches taken by Pieta House to suicide prevention. She bridled the way AA members bridle when asked why they don’t publish figures about the long-term sobriety of fellowship members.

Duffy wanted to be liked inside every studio. All that mattered was being liked outside the studio, but his instincts are to be overwhelmingly friendly (hence the over-use of the first names of interviewers) and to create a warm conspiracy of the knowing.

That latter instinct led him to repeatedly chuckle. It was the sort of chuckle that might happen as a bunch of male friends discuss a social gaffe one of them made on initial approach to the woman that lad later married. Warm, collegial, us-lads-together. Put in the clinical context of a radio or TV studio, however, it was simply odd, and when the viewing or listening public runs into something odd, something they cannot compute, they get ratty with the person doing it.

End result: Gavin Duffy came in last. And sounded serene and statesmanlike in his concession interviews.

Peter Casey, on the other hand, ruined Micheál Martin’s bank holiday weekend by threatening to join Fianna Fáil. If the Fianna Fáil leader thought containing Éamon Ó Cuív was a challenge, wait till he experiences the impulsivity of Mr Authenticity.

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