Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 13 July 2014

Why our genuflecting to VIPs belongs in the past

Celebrity status: Barack and Michelle Obama were afforded plenty of fanfare in Belfast
Celebrity status: Barack and Michelle Obama were afforded plenty of fanfare in Belfast

Look, I know how exciting it is when a president comes to town. Forget about the iniquities of Guantanamo – when Obama flew over our house in his mighty Marine One helicopter, we rushed outside to gawp and marvel as the leader of the free world clattered by overhead.

Maybe he was looking down as the defining sights of Belfast spooled out below him: the rows of red-brick terraces, Samson and Goliath, Titanic Belfast, the big Wyse Byse on the Newtownards Road.

The arrival of a US president brings with it a strange sort of benediction, or blessing. It carries a reassurance that we are still special, still cared for, that our continuing struggle for 'peace' – while increasingly obscure and incomprehensible to outsiders, who thought we had it all sorted out years ago – has not been forgotten.

Of course, wide-eyed peasants as we secretly are, we have always been giddily susceptible to the love-bombing of American presidents. It makes us feel – fleetingly, at least – almost important.

Bill Clinton was the daddy: he knew exactly where our collective sweet spot was located and he never failed to find it.

But it wasn't just stardust; Clinton brought substance as well as style and a rare capacity to channel empathy and inspiration that could lift us during our darkest moments.

Obama, it turns out, is a bit more of a fumbler. During his keynote speech on Monday at the Waterfront Hall, his tendency towards high-flown, rambling rhetoric occasionally got in the way of that direct connection with the people at which his predecessor so excelled.

Plus, Clinton tended to get names right, whereas Obama garbled Seamus Heaney and referred to the top veteran sportswoman as Damn Mary Peters, which I assume was a verbal slip rather than a direct insult.

Fair play, though, for getting his tongue around the pronunciation of Mairtin O Muilleoir, Belfast's new Lord Mayor. He must have been practising that one on the plane.

And then there was the surfeit of oozy, sticky cheesiness that Americans are so embarrassingly fond of: all that heartfelt talk of destiny and dreams and a bright, shiny future. (The cynics among us just can't handle the cheese: it slides right off us.)

The Obamas must only have met the schoolgirl who introduced them, Hannah Nelson, five minutes before they walked on stage, yet she was automatically described as an extraordinary young woman who would go on to do amazing things in her life. Er, how did they know? Michelle Obama was gushing away, too, telling the assembled audience of youngsters that "we are so proud of you".

Yet what had they done to earn this eagerly-conferred pride, other than be young and live in Northern Ireland – neither of which they have any control over?

(Has Michelle never sat down with her daughters and watched The Incredibles, with its central philosophical insight that if everyone is special, then no-one is?)

There was something vaguely discomfiting, too, about the serried ranks of schoolchildren who were positioned behind Obama and remained standing throughout his long speech.

There's more than a whiff of exploitation in the air when you use kids as a visual backdrop: with all their clean and earnest young faces, nodding and smiling, it's simply too easy an endorsement.

Don't get me wrong, the Obamas were a class act. They seemed to be about three feet taller than everyone else, for a start.

They had blindingly white teeth, exquisitely tailored clothes and they came trailing glamour and film star mystique – all of which was great fun and an amusing diversion from everyday life. But let's not pretend that their visit meant anything more than a kind of celebrity endorsement – only two steps up from Kim Kardashian, say, or one from Kanye West.

We need to get over this awkward tendency to go into obsequious cringe-mode when a VIP arrives in Northern Ireland.

We're far too quick to bow and scrape – which is itself a weird irony, given our long history of rebellion and dissent.

It's not necessary to hyperventilate with glee when a US president references "the craic", or any of our other cultural touchstones. By all means, enjoy the spectacle, roll up for the show.

But the days when we needed to get down on our knees in pathetic gratitude to anyone who was good enough to pop in and say hello to us belong well and truly in the past.

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