Crafting the Bertie brand

Sat, Sep 30, 2006, 01:00

Connect: George W Bush is never happier than when hacking at brush on his Texas ranch. Tony Blair loves to throw off his jacket, roll up his shirtsleeves and get down to work. Bertie Ahern is in his element with a pint of Bass in Fagan's and Man U on the telly.

These carefully crafted images of the Common Man may all bear some resemblance to some aspect of these men's personalities - for them to be most effective, it is preferable that they do. But they have progressed far beyond that to become massively important political archetypes. They are high-value brands, to be tampered with at your peril.

As Pat Rabbitte pointed out in the Dáil this week, Bertie Ahern has had a State car and driver at his disposal for most of his adult life. His salary, and the status and trappings conferred by his office, place him in the top sliver of Irish society. Yet, despite some improvement in his tailoring over the years, the image of Anorak Bertie still persists. This is the condition to which most modern politicians aspire; surrounded by the accoutrements of power, they must at all costs still appear to be plain, honest folk.

The process seems furthest advanced (or debased, if you prefer) in the English-speaking world. It's hard to imagine Jacques Chirac trying to pretend that he's a man of the people. In the US, however, even the most metropolitan politicians must pretend to be James Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, ornery folk railing against the Beltway sophisticates. Authenticity (whatever that might be) is everything.

It can all go horribly wrong. The derision which greeted an ill-advised attempt by Gordon Brown to suggest a fondness for the Arctic Monkeys, or the unconvincing sight of Al Gore and John Kerry trying to disguise their patrician roots, show the dangers of total personality reconstruction in pursuit of popularity. But, in the UK at the moment, old Etonian David Cameron is having some success in rebranding himself as eco-conscious, hoodie-loving, ordinary Dave Bloke. Cameron is the purest example yet in the political sphere of Jean Baudrillard's definition of a simulacrum, "a truth which hides the fact there is none". What Baudrillard was describing used to be called an idol, a word popular among the makers of reality TV shows. And the spurious authenticity of reality TV is the condition to which politics increasingly aspires.

Consider the Taoiseach's face in last Tuesday's television interview. To this viewer, it appeared far greyer than usual. The pinkness of his lips stood out against the pallid skin. The overall effect was of a man who had not been sleeping well, who had been wrestling with demons.

He looked, in short, as anyone looks who hasn't submitted themselves to the attentions of a make-up artist before exposing themselves to the harsh lights of TV. Ahern's substantial cosmetics budget is a matter of public record, so what happened on Tuesday? This was a very bad make-up job - or a very good one. While his words avoided any suggestion of wrongdoing or remorse, his pallor and body language were those of a penitent. Message delivered.

However, events later in the week suggest that something is malfunctioning at the heart of Fianna Fáil's spin machine. But, whatever happens in the next few days, can the Opposition take advantage in the run-up to the election? The billboards currently being erected around the country by Fine Gael suggest not. In these excruciatingly awful ads, Enda Kenny is seen in Blair-esque shirtsleeves, getting ready to fix the country. Or presumably that's the idea. Not to put too fine a point on it, he looks both embarrassed and embarrassing, like a character from a particularly cruel Ricky Gervais sketch. His head is cocked at a peculiar angle, reminiscent of that adopted by Dermot Morgan in Father Ted when he was assuring us that the money was only resting in his account. If anyone in Fine Gael had an iota of sense, they would go out and rip these things down before they do any further damage.

"Serious" political analysts may decry such superficiality. But the electorate is acutely tuned to the nuances of media presentation. It is extremely sophisticated in decoding the signals conveyed. At a deep, sometimes subconscious level, it will react to those signals, and will make its decision accordingly.

The revelations in The Irish Times about Bertie Ahern's whip-round have whipped up the biggest political twister in several years. It remains to be seen exactly how that story ultimately plays out, but it has convulsed and energised the political classes at the outset of the last Dáil term before the election.

Its effect on the majority of the population, those less exercised by the minutiae of politics, those whom Bertie Ahern was effectively addressing this week, remains to be seen.

Eddie Holt is on leave