The degree was an opportunity for Cowen to make a speech. A lengthy speech. Fifty minutes, writes Terry Prone

I MET the former taoiseach, Brian Cowen, only once. That was when he was minister for health. Like his predecessors, he was encountering one nasty controversy after another.

The latest was going to put him on that night’s Prime Time, and someone, either in the department or in Fianna Fáil, had persuaded the minister that seeing a communications trainer — specifically, me — before the programme might be a good idea.

That was where another good idea didn’t just bite the dust, but chewed and ingested it. When we arrived in his office, the minister was civil, but evinced no interest in media preparation.

He either saw no problem in doing what he always did on TV — a sulky, syllable-swallowing non-communication — or had no insight into it. Either way, interest had he none. It was as if he had been contracted to give me a particular length of time, the way you’d give Bosco a particular length of time if someone brought him into your office and placed him on your desk: “Hello, boys and girls…”

The oddest aspect of the encounter was Cowen’s absolute dearth of curiosity. Most politicians who meet someone like me, someone who has been appearing in the media or delivering media training for decades, are curious at different levels and about different things.

Some of them are curious about the styles of various presenters. Is Matt Cooper as hostile as he seems on this topic? Where does Vincent Browne get off with shouting people down?

Some of them are curious about programme protocols. Can the programme ‘empty seat’ them if they don’t go? (They do not, of course, call it ‘empty-seating,’ but you get the drift.)

Many are curious about what they should wear, how much slap they should let the make-up artist put on them, and whether or not they should say ‘Good evening, Miriam,’ after she’s asked the first question. (They shouldn’t. People watching want to hear the answer to the question, not get a lesson in good manners at the expense of forward progress.)

The more intelligent politicians want to know how a TV appearance can be memorable, what data to use, and how to shut the other guy up without a smack in the kisser.

At the very top level of IQ, politicians are curious about the cognitive principles behind the advice they’re getting. They’re curious about how to transfer a concept from short-term to long-term memory. They’re curious about the studies undertaken, and the books written, about communication.

The curiosity is at different levels, depending on the intelligence and experience of the politician, but, at every level, curiosity exists. Not, though, with Cowen. I had never before encountered someone who had no interest whatever in any aspect of media. Nor have I ever since.

That everybody maintains that Cowen is an intellectual heavyweight made this even more baffling. The cleverer you are, the more inquisitive you tend to be. Cleverness and control of context depend on gathering and understanding data.

Success in any field, whether it’s politics, war, medicine, or artisan cheese, entails working out the consequences of possible actions. Leadership isn’t just about taking action.

It’s about getting and analysing the truth on the basis of which action may be taken, the classic example being Dwight D Eisenhower, as Allied supreme commander, busting and sending home a US general who had called his Allied counterpart a “British son of a bitch”. Eisenhower had no problem with the SOB bit, he just believed the chauvinist bit unacceptable around a strategy table.

That astonishing lack of interest in the consequences of his actions arose again last week, when Cowen accepted an honorary degree.

It was predictable that some former alumnus would get on his/her high horse and tell the university to stick an honorary degree given to them, because of its perceived devaluation by the Cowen conferring. Former University of Limerick president Edward Walsh duly obliged.

However, if Cowen wanted to spend an hour wearing a collapsed tea cosy, all he had to do was ring Father Ted actress Pauline McLynn and she’d have run him up one, no bother. But the purpose of accepting the degree appears to have been more related to the opportunity to make a speech. A lengthy speech. Fifty minutes, according to some of the reports.

If Cowen had come to someone like me, in advance of preparing that speech, he’d have heard a number of home truths, first of which is that repositioning yourself after a massive public disaster that has imprinted you on the public mind as one of its architects is not going to be remotely possible with one speech.

Repositioning yourself after such a disaster — as his predecessor as taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, could have told him — requires years of patient work. No evidence exists to suggest Cowen would embark on such a long, hard slog.

The second home truth is that a 50-minute speech is never justified.

You have to be the most charismatic person in the room, the best ‘reader’ of the audience, the funniest, most passionate and most credible personality, to hold people for more than 30 minutes. Cowen is none of the above.

The third home truth is that the speech must be written in the spoken word. It must sound, in short, as if one person were saying it to another person, rather than writing an essay. This Cowen has never been able to do. What follows is one of the better paragraphs of the essay Cowen read:

“We knew that the required action would understandably be more unpopular than almost any policies in recent Irish history and that this threatened the survival of the government and our hopes of election.

However, we also know that to avoid taking the decisions would mean that future recovery could be put off by decades.”

That’s the rhetoric of a man incurious about rhetoric. That’s the written, rather than the spoken word.

Thirty-three words in a sentence is bad enough, but the lazy conceptual language is worse. Phrases such as “the required action” and “any policies in recent Irish history” provoke interested auditors to distract themselves by supplying examples and uninterested auditors to disengage.

But the worst problem of the speech was his comment about the hundreds of thousands who lost their jobs in the recession.

“I deeply regret the loss of employment,” was what he said.

Well, you know something, I deeply regret that today is Monday, because Sundays are more fun, but if I say it, it’s not an apology. It’s an observation. Nobody feels better about it being Monday, because I regret it.

Just as nobody feels better about having had no job for the last few years, because Cowen “regrets” it. An apology is different. You own an apology and confession is good for the soul.

But, to deliver a great speech or apology, you first need to be curious about how other people feel, think, and learn. Brian Cowen does not seem to have that essential curiousity.


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