From Marcus Aurelius to Jesse Ventura: terrible leaders and their artistic notions

I’m easily swayed by politicians who do art. Here are some of my favourites

Former US president Bill Clinton plays the sax with BB King (right) and Dave Boruff (centre) in 2001. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty

Former US president Bill Clinton plays the sax with BB King (right) and Dave Boruff (centre) in 2001. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty


I watched a video recently in which Leo Varadkar wanders among the common man, sometimes just in his shirt sleeves like some sort of crazed nudist, marvelling at the wonders wrought by his budget, Fine Gael’s budget, God’s budget.

There’s an odd bit towards the end, when he seems to high-five a youthful punter. However, we do not actually see the hands connecting. The shot begins just after the high five has been completed. I watched this incomplete high five again and again. It bothered me. Why was there not a full high five?

“Leo Varadkar can’t high five” is the conspiracy theory I’m now running with (I mean, where is that child? He’s gone. Disappeared. He saw too much). In general, the video reinforced my sense of Leo as a sui generis politician who emerged from the womb with one hand outstretched in greeting and the other clutching a political pamphlet. Learning to high five was, frankly, a waste of his valuable canvassing time.

In Ireland we outsource the vision thing (high fives are part of visionary politics) to an arty president, who makes the most of it by looming out of the mist flanked by mountain dogs uttering poetry in his native Elvish. In contrast, Leo, with his interesting socks and bad high fives, feels like one of those Rose of Tralee contestants whose “talent” is reading.

As a Dublin 4 media elitist, I’m easily swayed and manipulated by politicians who do art and thus can high five, even if they’re bad artists and/or people. So here are my favourite examples of “arty” politicians. A lot of them are terrible, to be fair.

Patrick Pearse and his violent poet chums
Nowadays politicians pride themselves on business acumen and Facebook’s opinionated uncles say things like “You know who should be taoiseach? Michael O’Leary!” or “You know who would be a great minister for Finance? That Scrooge McDuck from Duck Tales!”

My bias is different. When I see aspiring politicians say “I’m a business person” I hear “I’m a grifter, see? A wheeler-dealer, a carnie . . . Wanna buy a bridge or a second passport?” and I hear it in an old-timey gangster voice.

In the early part of the last century the people of Ireland had different priorities. They let a bunch of suicide mystics in charge of setting the course of the nation. There wasn’t an economist or entrepreneur among the bunch. They were jingoistic rhymesters and head-the-balls with newfangled ideas and smuggled guns. It was like giving executive powers and weaponry to Aosdána.

What sort of budget would Pearse and McDonagh and Plunkett and the rest have orchestrated given a chance? Some sort of utopian socialistic programme, says you.

Well, that was a trick question. They’d have no budget. They’d stop at the first few spreadsheets, write a couple of creepy lines about alluring children (read Pearse’s weird poems) and then occupy a building and shoot some soldiers. Yes, that’s the kind of visionary batshittery that’s sorely lacking among Ireland’s stolid Fine Gael technocrats and is stopping us going down in the blaze of glory we all secretly crave.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his big thoughts
A stoical self-help guru, Marcus Aurelius, like Oprah, oversaw a huge empire, was the owner of many sculptures of himself looking cool on a horse and wrote a best-selling book of aphorisms. His empire, unlike Oprah’s, was a literal and autocratic one that owned countries and enslaved and crushed people. So who better to write about coping with life’s little annoyances than he? Meditations is basically Thrive or Lean In for the late Roman empire and I have a copy by my bed (I really do!). My household also has a subscription to O Magazine (as good if not better).

A statue of the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius

Jeffrey Archer and his sexy books
With the social realism of Kane and Abel and Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, it’s no surprise that Jeffrey Archer was a far-left union rabblerouser who was ultimately jailed for his beliefs. Only joking! Baron Archer wrote ridonkulous tales of sex and wealth and he was jailed for lying to a judge about an affair he had with a prostitute #heroism #wellness.

Bill Clinton and his saxophone
Of course, Bill Clinton played the saxophone. A golden phallic instrument that the proud president would whip out at the slightest provocation? As metaphors go, it’s a little on the nose. The saxophone solo leitmotif was also, like the man himself, a phenomenon designed to leeringly follow women in the early 1990s. There’s a reason all the saxophones were destroyed in the last century. That said, many centrist dads still love creepy Uncle Bill (everyone should listen to the Clinton scandal-investigating Slow Burn podcast).

Tony Blair and his terrible band
It is said that Tony Blair also played guitar in a band, Ugly Rumours, but this feels to me like a fabrication designed to endear him to sad baby boomers. If it is true, it’s only because New Labour invented a time machine and went back in time to force the young Blair join a band after a focus group said he needed to be more like Bill Clinton. That’s exactly the sort of thing New Labour would have done if they invented a time machine. Not for them “killing Hitler” or any other such prosaic nonsense (Hitler, by the way, was also an artist but I’m not touching that one).

George W Bush and his colourdy pictures
His murderously reckless foreign policy decisions still make him the worst US president of the 21st century but now he paints charming pictures of doggies and campaigns for extremely right wing, allegedly abusive supreme court judges. He seems happy enough though, despite believing in hell.

Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger and their terrifying Predator
This film about an angry alien hunting the most dangerous prey of all, hunks, spawned not one but two hunky US governors. One was Jesse Ventura, a former wrestler who uttered the immortal words “I ain’t got time to bleed” (nowadays a relatively sensible campaign slogan) and the other was Arnold Schwarzenegger, a sentient cluster of muscles and glands animated by Reaganism and acting classes. Ventura went on to investigate conspiracy theories on cable television and Arnold Schwarzenegger is remaking Twins (with his real-life brother Danny DeVito). Meanwhile, the Predator himself is running in the upcoming congressional election. He’s campaigning on a promise to hunt and kill the weak with his facial mandibles, which is a moderate campaign promise for a Republican these days, so good luck to him.

King David and his poems
It’s an average Saturday afternoon and you spot some dweeb sitting around writing poems in the shade of an olive tree. “Nerd!” you shout. “Look at the nerd!” you add. “I hope you’re happy with your girlfriend, ‘poetry’, you nerd!” you shout and then you check to see if anyone notices your clever jokes (You know how you are).

But oh no! It’s King David the biblical “warrior poet.” He once killed a man with a rock and didn’t go to prison because he was in politics and now he’s got you in a headlock and is twisting your ear and everyone is laughing. This is humiliating! Well, I hope you’ve learned your lesson – don’t bully King David the Warrior Poet. Stick to nervous children.

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