Those expecting the Irish presidential race to fade from the global headlines now that scandal-ridden public intellectual David Norris has dropped out (and fled the country) are dead wrong. This week, reports from Ireland suggest that apolitical 77-year old talk show host Gay Byrne, known as the “Elder Lemon of Irish Broadcasting,” will seek the ceremonial presidency on the centrist Fianna Fail ticket. As host of Ireland’s seminal Late Late Show from 1962 to 1999, Byrne was like Johnny Carson without the sociopathy and David Frost without the womanizing. His show was witty and intelligent, and, in turn, helped sustain the virtues of wit and intelligence in the Irish cultural mainstream.
Indignant Irish journalists who deride as a farce the current presidential campaign, with its talk show hosts and its pederasty allegations, fail to grasp what makes this current election so interesting to people worldwide. While High-Culture America’s next head-shaking electoral circus will involve sexting, slush funds, Eliot Spitzer and Dick Grasso, the Irish presidential race — even at its most egregiously tacky — finds a jazz-loving Dick Cavett prototype replacing a Joyce-quoting literature professor in a bid to serve, essentially, as National Spokesman. We see here how the Irish perceive celebrity as an intellectually honorific status, entertainment as a lofty representation of culture, and politics as a veritable salon. The mouth-breathing Americans on this side of the Atlantic are not gaping at the Irish presidential race out of condemnation (as delightfully insular Dublin journalists seem to think) but out of wonderment — the same way we watch ITV’s worst sitcoms and soap operas on PBS with our grandparents during Easter.
Byrne still hasn’t technically confirmed his candidacy, but the Irish press is talking about it like it’s a done deal. It’s just too bad Byrne didn’t jump into the race sooner. A televised Norris-Byrne debate would have been the most entertaining thing to hit politics since the Mailer-Breslin mayoral ticket.