He came back again, but he seems to be failing worse. Had he stayed away, he could have retained the whiff of a martyr, leaving the stage with the question of what-coulda-been trailing behind him.
Instead, the subsequent exposure, which at times has lurched into hounding, must have left him rattled to his core. He has a serious battle on his hands, not to win the presidency — that now is practically beyond his reach — but to ensure his reputation ships no further damage.
The first full week of the election campaign was a torrid seven days for Norris. At the beginning of the week, the most recent opinion poll had him second in the race. The only controversy hanging over him was his refusal to publish the letters he sent to members of the Israeli establishment 15 years ago, pleading clemency for his ex-partner Ezra Nawi, following the latter’s conviction for statutory rape.
Norris said the letters were nearly identical to the one which prompted his exit when it surfaced in late July. That letter was published, yet he was refusing to publish the others, giving rise to the suspicion that the missives contained further unpalatable insights about his character.
Having failed to put that to bed, the controversies began screaming out from front pages for the remainder of the week. He was accused of abusing his senate position to obtain citizenship for another lover. The story was not based on facts.
He was accused of drinking excessively. It was reported that he was going blind. Both of these issues were dug up from books published years ago, and largely misrepresented the true situations.
Then there was the disability payment, which he began receiving from his employer Trinity College in 1995 after contracting an illness. For the next 15 years he received the disability allowance along with his senator’s stipend. His dual income was no different to senators and TDs in receipt of state pensions for previous service.
Some of the stories were presented in bright, flashing lights which cranked up the controversy quotient. If Norris felt paranoid about elements of the media, that didn’t mean they weren’t out to get him.
On Wednesday, an opinion poll put him at 11%, down 14 points on his previous showing. That poll was taken before he was savaged on Vincent Browne’s TV debate over the letters issue.
The following morning, Norris was due to turn up in Portlaoise for a walkabout. His canvassing team was in place, leafleting the damp streets, but word came through that he was stuck in a meeting.
LATER that day, after a second poll confirmed the trend, he was in manic form at The Square in Tallaght. He berated reporters for not being in Carlow earlier to witness the amazing reception he received in the town’s IT.
“Every day something very odd is said in the papers about me, some of it is untrue and manufactured, some of it is true,” he said.
“I’ve been told I’m blind.
“Really? If anybody wants to produce a piece of paper, I’ll read from it.”
He generated interest from shoppers immediately; most whom he approached reacted with enthusiasm. Shamrock Rovers keeper Ryan Thompson was passing by. Norris engaged him about soccer.
“I was a very good right winger,” he said.
“I was down in Cork the other day, got a great reception. Where were you?” he asked reporters in his best J’accuse pose. The theme remained constant. He was getting a great reception, but the media was blackening him and ignoring his popularity.
“They can blackguard me as much as they like.”
Nobody blanked him. Repeatedly, passers-by told him they would vote for him. When he leaned over an ascending elevator to ask a woman on the descending one for a vote, she shouted back, “Number two”.
Whenever somebody expressed admiration for him, he beckoned the reporters to come hither and record this vote of popularity.
Through it all his form remained manic, and he looked and moved like a man a decade younger than the frontrunner Michael D Higgins, although there are only three years between them.
In Eason’s he declared himself a bookaholic.
“I’m going to walk in a straight line, look. It’s six o’clock, if I was an alcoholic I couldn’t do that.”
He picked a book a DBC Pierce book from a shelf and began reading, to demonstrate that he is not blind. Nobody pointed out that Seán Gallagher’s visual impairment did him no harm at the polls.
A quick detour into a cafe led to an encounter with another admirer. He told her what he had done for Temple Bar.
“It never gets any recognition though, just like my message.”
A sense of resentment polluted his orbit wherever he went. The truth, though, is that if there have been elements out to get him, then they have been ably assisted by his inability to address salient issues. The letters controversy in particular has left him badly damaged, and that is largely his own doing.
He has nearly three weeks to scramble support. The polls suggest that despite a flight of votes, he still has the ability to attract transfers. It’s as if the public haven’t withdrawn their affection, even if they want somebody else as President.
There is a danger that his campaign might go into meltdown. After 30 years of a fine record in defending civil and human rights, he deserves more than that. It’s all but certain he will fail again. It is still within his grasp to fail better.