Radio review: George Hook turns off-colour at JFK’s graveside

The Newstalk broadcaster had too much of an eye on the bottom line at a ceremony to remember the US president

Memorial: John F Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside Washington DC. Photograph: Jonathan Newton/Washington Post via Getty

Memorial: John F Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside Washington DC. Photograph: Jonathan Newton/Washington Post via Getty

Sat, Jun 22, 2013, 01:00

It was a transatlantic trip that, though brief, was saturated with symbolism and rhetoric about the strong bonds between Ireland and the US, punctuated by ceremonial appearances and political encounters. Yes, George Hook was in verbose mood as he travelled through the US last week, broadcasting The Right Hook (Newstalk, weekdays) from New York and Washington DC by way of tribute to the US president’s momentous visit.

It might seem strange for Hook to decamp across the ocean just as the Obama show arrived in Ireland, but then the presenter was much more interested in the presidential trip that took place 50 years ago, when John F Kennedy journeyed to his ancestral homeland. On Tuesday, in advance of today’s half-centennial celebrations of the visit in New Ross, Hook sounded as if he would choke up as he described how a lone Irish Army piper had played during the day’s flame-lighting ceremony at JFK’s grave, in Arlington National Cemetery. “That got to me, like,” he tearily recounted.

Hook had assembled an impressive cast of guests to testify to the importance of JFK’s 1963 trip, from clan members such as Kathleen Kennedy Townsend – an engaging, intelligent presence – to Enda Kenny. The Taoiseach characterised the visit as “the last great joyous occasion before his unfortunate assassination”, a description that if nothing else speaks of a certain flair for understatement.

But with the misty-eyed rhapsodies came the hard sell. Hook, whose trip was sponsored by Tourism Ireland, constantly reiterated that the New Ross festivities were not only a commemoration but also a showcase for the country’s tourism industry. While talking to the Government Chief Whip, Paul Kehoe, the presenter posited that the occasion in Arlington had also raised US awareness of the Gathering, the often-criticised tourism initiative.

“We pulled off a massive coup,” Hook purred before launching a broadside at “cynics” sceptical about the Gathering’s mission to attract Irish-American visitors. “Every time you bring in a thousand Americans it brings in a million bucks,” he said. “Anyone who thinks this isn’t a good idea just doesn’t get it.”

It was a vintage performance by Hook, who was typically unalloyed in his patriotism, unabashed in his emotion and questionable in his arguments.

One doesn’t have to be a cynic to think that to view a landmark anniversary through the prism of monetary gain is to debase its resonance and meaning. It was a depressingly reductive assessment from Hook, who is otherwise an avowed fan of the US; maybe this was one of those moments when his perpetually ornery persona got in the way of his better judgment.

Hook wasn’t the only presenter to cast Hiberno-American relations in crassly economic terms. Broadcasting from Cashel on Monday, Ryan Tubridy (2FM, weekdays) enthused about hearing the “wonderful sound of American accents” in local hotel corridors. His joy was not aesthetic, however, as his caricatured impression of a stateside twang suggested. Instead, he said, “American accents equal – sorry to be so cynical – a few quid in local coffers.”

Tubridy’s riff was triggered by Michelle Obama’s visit to Dublin and Wicklow, which he reckoned was “a great privilege for us all, even if your bus is late for an hour today.”

Easy for him to say, speaking as he was from a roadcaster in Co Tipperary, part of his week-long nationwide jaunt to the regional finals of the national spelling bee. But then the presenter always sounds that bit looser and more relaxed when he takes his radio show on the road.

Indeed, when he rolled into Derry on Wednesday, Tubridy had the air of the wide-eyed tourist. Speaking to the singer Bronagh Gallagher, he appeared to view the Foyleside city’s troubled recent past as a bit of local colour, talking about the awe he felt at visiting Free Derry Corner, in the Bogside, the previous evening.

Tubridy was not naive. As a self-confessed history nerd, he was alive to the fissures that can still emerge in the North. During an otherwise soapy interview with the BBC presenter Zöe Salmon, he asked about her bullish assertion of her British identity on Twitter during last year’s controversy about flying the Union flag over Belfast city hall.

Salmon was momentarily flustered, talking about having “a lot of Irish friends”, before her host did the decent thing and helped her out: “Isn’t it tale of two cultures and you just lean to the British end? That’s the way the world works.” It was a lifeline that Salmon accepted gratefully. “All I can say is that I love everyone in the whole island of Ireland,” she gushed.

The platitude prompted Tubridy to change the sticky subject and gleefully remind his guest of her previous life as a beauty queen. But for all Tubridy’s urge to avoid messy controversy, the exchange introduced a smidgeon of bite, preventing the show from becoming the aural equivalent of a glossily banal travel brochure. Hook should take a leaf from Tubridy’s book.


radioreview@irishtimes.com

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