Cowen on Friday night and Cowen a year ago are two different men

ON September 5, 2008, Brian Cowen appeared on the Late Late Show to give his first big interview as Taoiseach to Pat Kenny.

On September 3, 2009, Mr Cowen appeared on the Late Late Show to give his first big interview of the autumn to new presenter Ryan Tubridy.

What a difference 363 days can make. The RTÉ website allows direct comparison between the two interviews, and the contrast between the Taoiseach now and the Taoiseach a little less than a year ago is startling.

The general reaction to the interview last Friday was that Mr Cowen hadn’t done badly, that the studio audience rose to him at the end and that he came out of it reasonably well.

His own colleagues will be relieved, because they will see it as a shoring up of the mudslide in their collective popularity underlined by the recent Irish Times opinion poll.

Apart from their own interest, they’ll be glad for his sake. Mr Cowen is deeply liked within Fianna Fáil. This, to outsiders, is puzzling, because Mr Cowen gives every impression of being surly, impatient and – as illustrated by the aside to the Tánaiste to “get those fu****s in” profane.

This impression, it must be admitted, is delivered most frequently in Leaders Questions in the Dáil, a forum with which he has failed to come to terms.

And yet his colleagues genuinely like Mr Cowen. They see him as honest, committed, intelligent and, above all, loyal. That last characteristic was reinforced in both Late Late interviews.

With Pat Kenny, Mr Cowen did a little promo for the then upcoming budget and the finance minister who would present it: “Brian Lenihan is going to do a good job on that,” he promised.

With Ryan Tubridy, Mr Cowen refused to take the easy option and go with the audience’s reaction to Tubridy’s crack about Bertie Ahern being blessed with foresight.

He had nothing to gain by being positive about Bertie, yet, although he bowed to Tubridy’s rapid-fire question sequence when it came to creating opportunities to be positive about himself, he mustered the energy to make a strongly approving comment about the former Taoiseach.

This man is loyal to his own. They know it. They like it.

It’s easy to suggest that the main reason his Cabinet like him so much is that he gave them their jobs.

It’s easy to suggest, too, that the fact that prominent ministers haven’t been having late-night meetings working out the details of their potential support were they to move against him is because they have a realistic fear of winning the right to lead their party into opposition. There’s more to their loyalty than either of those factors.

They want him to do well, and so they were glad that his courage in going on the first Tubridy Late Late paid off.

It is a measure of how far the party has come, in the last year, that they would see the interview as a good payoff. The huge audience, many of them watching the programme because they haven’t the money to take a social outing on Friday nights any more, found Mr Cowen humble and courteous.

They had a sense, reinforced by Ryan’s thanking of the Taoiseach for being “refreshingly frank and forthcoming”, that they were seeing something different. They were.

The Taoiseach on Friday night and the Taoiseach a year ago, on the same programme, are two different men. Even with the sound turned down on both recordings, that’s patently obvious.

Obviously, he’s in a worse situation today, because he – as Taoiseach but also as minister for finance in the good days – is widely held responsible for a radically worsened economic situation and for pushing a model of approach called NAMA, which has thus far failed to capture public engagement.

But that, even when you add the fact that the devastating opinion poll had issued a day earlier, does not explain it.

Nor does the location, although it will have contributed, just a bit. Last year, the Taoiseach was interviewed at the Opera Festival, where the audience was demographically, attitudinally and in distribution throughout what he described as a “La Scala-like” theatre, completely different to Ryan’s studio audience.

Last year, the atmosphere was one of sophisticated tolerance. The audience were the kind of people who like to think of themselves as listening to all sides of a discussion and as being open to all sides of a debate.

On Friday, the attitude of the audience, from the outset was “Get him, Ryan”. Mr Cowen is acutely sensitive to emotional temperature.

He lacks the capacity to influence or change that emotional temperature, but it reaches and wounds him, and the harsh laughter and applause for Tubridy’s questions undoubtedly reached and wounded him.

Last year, Mr Cowen communicated in the way his colleagues regard as the essence of him. He was witty – telling Kenny at the start that RTÉ always has more internal conspiracies going than Fianna Fáil does.

He was relaxed – the two hands flopping casually between gestures. He was expository: looking around and up, taking in the sweep of the auditorium as he talked about everything from the role of the cello in an orchestra to the amount of wisdom to be gleaned from the characters you meet in a rural town growing up, particularly if you have to serve behind the bar of a family business.

He talked of Ireland as being “more than a building site with a flagpole on it” and he was confident that the Irish people had the resilience to get through the tough times ahead.

Although he was talking seriously, lots of confident smiles broke through.

Fast forward to this Friday, and the contrast between the two versions of the same man is shocking. On Friday, the Taoiseach was crouched in a confessional posture, the deep blue stained-glass effect set behind him oddly reminiscent of a church.

The nearest he got to personal revelation was his mention of a quiet breakfast in his house on opinion poll morning.

Mostly, he talked process. Every time he got into ratification, mandates and white papers, Tubridy clipped him short, which upped the pace but never managed to push the Taoiseach into using the vivid singular examples of lived experience.

He met the alcohol question head on and then moved into a point which, even on replay, is not clear. References to stereotyping and caricaturing suggest he was trying to defend himself against media satire, but this kind of “you and I both know what I’m saying so I really don’t have to say it” communication doesn’t work on television.

Instead of smiling, the Taoiseach kept clamping his mouth closed, ready for the next blow. Instead of taking the initiative and driving the conversation, he responded, like a suspect under interrogation, convinced of his own innocence but without belief in his capacity to persuade others. Instead of last year’s measured optimism, viewers saw courteous, resigned doggedness.

If he is to have a future, the Taoiseach has to recapture the past. He must reclaim what he was just one year ago.

It’s easy to find on the RTÉ website.

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