Biffo takes his place in pantheon of the gaffers
In forgetting to check his microphone before using the F-word, the Taoiseach joined the select band of public figures who have had a 'Dubya moment'. But can he, like some of them, turn his gaffe to his advantage?
DURING THE US presidential election campaign in the autumn of 2000, George W Bush and his running mate Dick Cheney appeared at a rally before a huge crowd in a prosperous suburb of Chicago. As Bush scanned the press corps near the stage, he spotted the veteran New York Timesreporter Adam Clymer. A couple of months beforehand Clymer had written an article critical of Bush's record on healthcare as governor of Texas.
"There's Adam Clymer - major-league asshole - from the New York Times," whispered Bush to Cheney.
His soon-to-be vice-president replied: "Yeah. Big time."
With the crowd whooping and hollering, the conversation was inaudible to anybody but the two. But unknown to both men, what they had said was picked up by nearby microphones. Radio and TV reporters plugged into the sound system heard - to extend the sporting metaphor - the whole nine yards. The private conversation soon blew into a major league controversy of its own. For days on end, networks endlessly parsed the comments to see if the gaffe and the vulgarity reflected well or badly on Bush's character.
And so when Brian Cowen lived up to the spirit of the the letter f in Biffo on Wednesday morning, he joined a surprisingly large rogues' gallery of politicians who have made a crass or crude comment in private that has inadvertently become public.
It's astounding that, in so many cases, the means of the "outing" has been a microphone. Astounding because, after several generations of electronic media, you would think that people who live so much of their lives in the public eye would be wise to it. Occasionally, you even get a situation where a figure who should know better naively assumes that the interview he or she is giving goes magically "off the record" when they say something silly or vulgar. In those cases, they deserve everything that comes their way.
The Taoiseach got suckered in the simple but classic way - by a neat uppercut delivered by himself. He forgot to check to see if his microphone was still live before using a lazy collective noun to describe the people who tackle price inflation in Ireland. Once the snatch of the Dáil conversation between Cowen and Tánaiste Mary Coughlan was played on RTÉ Radio's News at One, the genie was out of the bottle and could not be forced back in.
What was clear from the outset was that the clearly audible "f***ers" was the key word. But the way it was reported on RTÉ, it was unclear whether Cowen was directing his ire at Fine Gael or at others. For in the run-up he had been involved in a bad-tempered donnybrook in the chamber with Enda Kenny, James Reilly and other FG TDs. If the F-word had been directed at Fine Gael, it could have meant big trouble for the Taoiseach. But digital removal of background noise by Today FM's tech-savvy political correspondent, Justin McCarthy, later that afternoon established that the f***ers were in fact the National Consumer Agency and others.
Such gaffes are best when they are unexpected. In 1993, while he was struggling in vain against right-wing plotters within his own cabinet, then British prime minister John Major gave an interview to ITN. When it was over, the camera crew zoomed around the room shooting "noddies" and cutaways, the shots used to splice gaps in the interview process. Major kept talking, believing himself to be off-mic. Patently furious with cabinet colleagues he thought were undermining him, he described three of them as "bastards".
THERE HAVE BEEN other toe-curlingly embarrassing slips, as when Britain's former deputy prime minister, John Prescott, gave a rambling answer to a question during a BBC interview.
"Can I do that again? I made that crap," he said to the interviewer.
"Erm, sorry. We are live at the moment, Mr Prescott," replied the taken-aback reporter.
Prince Charles had his own Dubya moment in 2005. Each year, he and his two sons, William and Harry, go on a skiing trip to the Alps and do a grudging photocall on the piste to keep the media off their backs for the rest of the trip. As they prepared to grin and bare for the assembled media throng, Charles noticed the BBC's Nicholas Witchell.
Oblivious to the fact that he was being picked up on mic, he said: "These bloody people. I can't bear that man. I mean, he's so awful, he really is."
Unfortunate former defence minister Michael Smith was also undone by a mic. Deputising for the Tánaiste on a Thursday morning, he had been given a going-over by the bruisers on the other side. As he sat down, he snorted: "Let them, f*** it, we'll say no more."
John Bruton also gaffed, but off-mic. On a visit to Cork, he was interviewed by a local radio reporter and became incensed at the line of questioning. Ordering her to turn the recorder off - and, at this stage, blowing his gasket spectacularly - he barked: "I am sick of answering questions about the f***ing peace process." At which point, the reporter became up- set. And for which, at a later stage, Bruton apologised.
One of the most celebrated gaffes was a brutally candid comment by Charles Haughey in 1984 to interviewer John Waters, writing for Hot Press: "The sort of smug know-all commentator . . . I suppose if anything annoys me, that annoys me . . . I could instance a load of f***ers whose throat I'd cut, and push over the nearest cliff, but there's no percentage in that."
It was eloquent and funny, but kind of sinister as well - a fair summation of Haughey himself, perhaps. For some strange reason, Haughey assumed Waters wouldn't use this comment, but of course he would.
The making public of such crudely hewn observations always makes for what American storm-watchers call a three-day blow. It's intriguing to see their effect: some of the gaffes go down like a lead balloon, others go down as smoothly as a creamy pint of plain.
John Bruton's outburst did him nothing but harm, contributing to the impression that he was an incendiary device which was always fully primed. During the 1992 election campaign, Albert Reynolds used the phrase "crap, total crap" to dismiss claims that he never spoke to his coalition partner from the PDs, Des O'Malley. He first used it in an interview with the Sunday Tribune, and his press secretary, Sean Duignan, explained it away as a slip of the tongue. But then, to his horror, Duignan discovered that Reynolds had taken a liking to the phrase and was using it on RTÉ and elsewhere.
Duignan later wrote that the slightly crude nature of the phrase damaged Reynolds in the campaign.
As for Haughey, the rough barrack-room honesty of his words fitted in with the way he wanted to present himself to the world, reinforcing both the admiration of his supporters and the detestation of his opponents.
John Major's "bastards" remark gave him a boost, acting as a corrective to his bland, grey image with a bit of steel and humanity.
With George W Bush, one thing you could be sure about - and this has become a familiar trait during his presidency - was that he wasn't going to apologise. His image as a "straight-talker" has done him no harm.
For Cowen, his utterance left him in a quandary. He has a core of supporters who admire his "Biffo" aggression and his very human rambunctiousness. But he is Taoiseach now and has made much of the constitutional importance of the role and of duties and obligations in high office. And coarseness of phrase does not fit neatly into that picture (coincidentally, Tánaiste Mary Coughlan herself has a reputation for swearing like a trooper).
Nobody was truly surprised to hear him use that language and nobody seriously believes it will do him any long-term damage. But he was very quick to apologise for using words that he said were not appropriate in private or public.
THERE IS ONE country, though, where the notion of inappropriate language has become almost obsolete, and that is Australia, where politicians fling filth at each other in public that no self-respecting sewer would accept.
Mongrels, imbeciles, swamp rats, bastards, pr**ks and lackeys are just some of the insults bandied across the chamber there. One MP demanded that the government "stop f***ing with our futures" (for which she got kicked out of the chamber to the thunderous applause of fellow MPs).
The undisputed wizard of the crude Australian intervention was the former Labour prime minister, Paul Keating. He once told Liberal prime minister Malcom Fraser: "You look like an Easter Island statue with an arse full of razorblades." He also, more subtly, told another Liberal leader, John Hewson: "You are simply a shiver waiting for a spine to run up."
Another Labour leader in opposition, Mark Latham, wasn't trotting far behind. He described New South Wales premier Bob Carr as "an A-grade arsehole" and greeted a trip to the US by Liberal prime minister John Howard with the words: "Howard is an arse-licker. He went over there, kissed some bums, and got patted on the head."
It makes Brian Cowen's ill-chosen words seem tame by comparison.