Uachtaráin Bill Clinton? Close but no cigar


THE facts have got in the way of Bill Clinton’s speculative bid for the presidency of Ireland. Dammit. Just when we were having fun with the idea.

Clinton claimed eligibility for the role in an interview with Piers Morgan on CNN this week. Forgive me for playing fast and loose with the word “interview”, when what I’m really attempting to describe is Piers Morgan climbing into Bill Clinton’s lap for a cuddle.

After lamenting the fact that Clinton can’t “be president for the next 30 years” because of that “goddamned 22nd Amendment”, Morgan said: “We’re trying to change the rules in Britain, actually, because if you can’t be president again here [in the US], we’d quite like you to be prime minister in our country. Are you available…?”

Clinton replied that there were only two countries in the world where he can run for president – Ireland, because of his Irish forebears, and France, because of the Louisiana Purchase. (Clinton is from Arkansas, which was once part of French Louisiana, which is probably the best thing that’s ever been said about Arkansas.)

He’s wrong though, as everyone rushed to point out. Clinton’s maternal ancestors, the Cassidys from Fermanagh, are too far back to confer Irish citizenship on him. Similarly, the Louisiana Purchase was too long ago to make him French.

So the notion was quickly put down, before everyone had had nearly enough time to sport with it. Half of France and Ireland were busy wondering whether to take it seriously. The rest of us had seized gratefully on the chance to reflect yet again on the Louisiana Purchase, and were sat on our stoops with a bellyful of gumbo, thinkin’ on it.

Ireland certainly claims ownership of Bubba. Why wouldn’t we? Haven’t we claimed all six American presidents since Jimmy Carter – or been claimed by them, as a sop to Irish-American voters? Even George W Bush could boast Irish ancestry, although he tended not to, much to everyone’s relief.

Midway through Bill Clinton’s second term, Toni Morrison described him in the New Yorker as “our first black president”, saying that he displayed “every trope of blackness”: single parent family, childhood poverty, saxophone playing and so on.

We need tinker only slightly with those tropes to make him ours. We’ll have to get rid of the saxophone, naturally; we can substitute an acoustic guitar – not so much played as regularly beaten half to death for the sake of three chords. And let’s replace the single parent with married parents who spend 55 years destructively loathing each other because they don’t approve of divorce. Now throw in Bubba’s alcoholic dad. There, you see? We’ve taken Toni Morrison’s Clinton and turned him into Classic Irish Lad, straight from Central Casting.

However, Clinton might prefer the French post to the Irish one. Being the president of France must present at least half a chance of bagging another Carla Bruni. After all, it is a well-known fact that the doors of the Élysée Palace are battered down daily by beautiful heiresses in search of even more upward social mobility.

Áras an Uachtaráin, on the other hand… No one is clamouring to get into Áras an Uachtaráin except activists and community workers and the like who – in all fairness to them and we all know they do great work – are probably not going to put out.

Nevertheless, the Irish job pays quite a bit better than the French one. Uachtarán na hEireann gets just under €250,000, which is a sight better than the French president’s stingy €180,000. It even compares favourably with the $400,000 (€310,000) that the US president gets, considering the difference in responsibilities.

The US president has to Lead The Free World and what have you; the Irish president’s duties consist merely of praising schoolchildren, standing around in the rain at the Ploughing, and articulating pious hopes about the diaspora.

He’s also the Supreme Commander of the armed forces, of course. This might present Clinton with a challenge: that of keeping a straight face while inspecting the troops. “I’d like to pay tribute to our brave service men and wom… Wait a second, where are the rest of them? This is it? You’re kidding.”

But only imagine if Clinton had been eligible – and available – to spare us the soul-destroying boredom of Mary McAleese’s second term. How heartily would we have thanked him. Alas, it was not to be.

However, let it not be said that Bill Clinton, having done America twice, is now in the unhappy position of not being eligible to run for president anywhere at all. No, he has hope. He can become a citizen of France, either by living there for five years or by – oh well now, isn’t this lucky? – marrying a French woman. Carla? Carla! You’re wanted.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 23 September 2012

Political vegetables

English: Michelle Obama with Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

For a while there – a short while – it looked as if the life of a political wife might be changing for the better. For a while, it looked as if having an IQ in three figures might be becoming less of an impediment to your spouse’s political progress.

In America, the vacant-eyed Laura Bush packed her bags and went back to Stepford, and the world greeted Michelle Obama, with her capable arms and her Harvard law degree. France, meanwhile, finally got rid of the exasperating Carla Bruni and replaced her as Premiere Dame with a woman with a master’s in political science from the Sorbonne and a 20-year career in journalism.

But any hopes that the era of simpering ‘n’ sympathy was over were quickly quelled. Michelle Obama is now using her doctorate in law to run a vegetable garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And in France, Valerie Trierweiler, who promised to revolutionise the office of first lady, has instead turned it into an embarrassing and unseemly cat fight.

It began when French president Francois Hollande pledged his support for his ex, former presidential candidate Segolene Royal, in her bid for a parliamentary seat in La Rochelle. Valerie was put out. She is reportedly jealous of Francois’s former partner, with whom he spent a quarter-century and who is mother of his four children. You might think it would be Segolene who would be jealous, as she is the one who lost both her man and her two chances of a residency in the Elysee Palace, but no.

Valerie took to the twitter machine (no modern-day melodrama being complete without a tweet) to back Segolene’s opponent instead. She wrote: “Courage to Olivier Falorni, who was not unworthy, who fights alongside Rochellais for so many years in a selfless commitment,” or as far as those of us with school French are concerned, that’s what she wrote.

Falorni won the electoral battle last weekend, with 63% of the vote, and Segolene, who has now lost more battles than Napoleon, was furious.

Without meaning to be unkind, Francois looks more like the sort of man who enjoys one of those cordial but lacklustre marriages that last 60 years. He doesn’t look the type to find himself in the middle of a humiliating middle-aged love triangle. But then this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a homely French politician cast into the spotlight by a striking woman. (All three characters in this drama are too old for it but, being French, the two women have been able to keep their cheekbones.)

Anyway, so much for a fresh, new, progressive intelligence in political life. Valerie promised to be a new broom, sweeping away all those silly expectations about trophy wives. Instead, people in France are now talking about Francois’s failure to “control” his girlfriend. It’s like ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. It’s as bad a setback as Hillary baking cookies, or Michelle Obama hoeing her life away.

To be fair, the photos of Michelle in her vegetable garden can be justified on the grounds that they might help to ensure that Mitt Romney’s wife doesn’t become the next Flotus. But that doesn’t stop you wondering why a man’s political struggle must entail a woman in the background waving radishes.

The First Lady has to be gracious, discreet, apolitical, stylish but not glamorous, and unambitious to the point of self-annihilation. She must be interested in: her husband, her children, the Nation’s Children, baking, interior design, world peace, and something to do with the environment, in more or less that order.

And, what does the First Gentleman have to be? Nothing. Look at Martin McAleese, who got away with having ostensibly no personality at all for 14 years. Denis Thatcher was famous portrayed as being interested in only gin and golf. And you may not know this, but Mister Angela Merkel is a quantum chemist who keeps himself to himself.

It’s easier for men to be invisible because people aren’t perpetually scrutinising how much weight they’re putting on. All the same, I think it only fair that political husbands be expected to conform to slightly demeaning gender stereotypes in the domestic field as well.

For instance, they should be obliged to demonstrate that they can tinker unproductively for days under the bonnet of a 1967 Austin Healey. They should have a proven ability to leave DIY projects unfinished, while being the supreme authority on the quality of those DIY projects left unfinished by other political husbands. They should build forts and train sets ‘for the kids to play with’.

Above all they should maintain a studied but polite indifference towards all the emotional dramas in their partners’ lives. This is something Francois will need to get the hang of – not as political spouse but as president.

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 24 June 2012