THERE’S a story in John Ehrlichman’s book ‘Witness To Power: The Nixon Years’ about the 1960 US Presidential election campaign which tells you something about the effect that touring the country can have on a candidate.
“After one particularly long campaign day,” Ehrlichman writes, “ending with an airport reception featuring an endless line of dignitaries to greet ... a school band to be thanked and a huge crowd to be addressed and then ‘worked’ along the fence, [Richard] Nixon finally made his way to his limousine. He turned to [HR] Haldeman [later to become White House Chief of Staff] as they drove away and said, with exhausted seriousness, ‘Bob, from now on I don’t want to land at any more airports’.”
Just how much time a candidate for high office can spend on the road is underlined by a story in ‘Showtime’, a book by ‘Sunday Business Post’ political editor Pat Leahy, subtitled ‘The Inside Story Of Fianna Fáil In Power’. The most fascinating chapter deals with the 1997 election, and prospective Taoiseach Bertie Ahern went on a hand-shaking marathon.
”His absence from election HQ became a running joke with some of the team,” writes Leahy. “One day the receptionist … received a call from someone [named] Bertie, calling from Limerick. Who? Bertie. Bertie who? The leader, came the terse reply. The call was put through to the press room. ‘The Limerick Leader’ was on the line.”
Identity was also at the heart of another ruse which was dreamed up at Fianna Fáil election HQ. Lobby groups always try to extract commitments from political parties at election time, and Fianna Fáil agreed in writing to almost every concession that was sought. One problem, though. “The letters were signed by a name someone had simply made up’, writes Leahy. “Another aide says that he didn’t make up names as such, but he might have signed a few signatures that were pretty much illegible. And in Irish.”
The truth is often the first casualty of radio phone-ins, but this is particularly true at election time. During the 1997 campaign, callers to such programmes were frequently located in Fianna Fáil election HQ, ‘masquerading as a farmer from Kildare, or a housewife from Ballybofey’. “One volunteer,” Leahy reveals, “managed to inveigle himself into a radio debate with party leaders’ not just in 1997, but again in 2002 and 2007”. When he managed to get on the radio, a muffled cheer would go up: he’s done it again!
The most bizarre story in the book takes place far from the maelstrom of election campaigns, however. It concerns the ‘apparent other-worldliness’ of Martin Mansergh, who acted as an advisor to Fianna Fáil before becoming a parliamentarian himself. During one meeting when a mobile phone’s ringtone sounded near him – admittedly, Leahy adds, at ‘a time when mobile phone ownership … was hardly commonplace’ – Mansergh picked up a television remote control and began to speak in a rising tone into it. “Hello? Hello? HELLO?” he asked.
It’s hard to know whether to laugh or to cry.