Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

How I enjoyed some shamrock 'n' roll with Obama

Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama

Look, I'm not trying to boast, but I did go to Washington last week for work and wound up at the White House while the world's most powerful man made a speech two feet away from me.

I just thought I'd give you the benefit of the wisdom of three days in the capital of the only superpower on the planet. This will be the least-researched article on the subject you will likely read.

There's no irony or sarcasm in Washington. I think it might have been outlawed. Everywhere I went, immaculately dressed men and women talked politics/business in the most earnest of ways without a trace of self-doubt. Even over a beer in a bar, the most animated conversation I heard was about the failures of the Romney presidential campaign.

One morning at 8am breakfast in the hotel, a man next to me threw in to the conversation with his associate that he'd just come from another meeting. I had to look at my watch to confirm the extraordinariness of this. He made me tired just listening to him.

And they actually discuss politics as they jog. Hundreds of bright young things run daily between Capitol Hill and the Lincoln Memorial. I imagine admitting you don't exercise is akin to saying you've never voted. I swear two men rushed passed me talking about recent economic performance in Peru. State Department types, no doubt.

The Stars and Stripes is sacred. Even in the Smithsonian museum, there is no attempt at objective analysis. A massive room houses the tattered original which flew over Baltimore harbour during the war of independence against those dastardly Brits. Some knelt in front of it. Many gazed in open-mouthed wonder. When was the last time you did that to your flag of choice?

I watched the presidential cavalcade drive through the streets one afternoon. It had seven cars, four SUVs, two limos, 15 motorcycle cops and a fire engine. How can one man stay within touching distance of reality with that degree of insulation?

I was there for the St Patrick's Day meetings and receptions. Message to Irish marketeers. Do not dilute Oirishness for our American friends. Forget new stories from this island, just play the pipes and let the girls dance. I saw several old men dewy-eyed over this stuff.

Americans do like a narrative with a happy Hollywood ending. Northern Ireland is just such a story. That we still have many issues doesn't really compute. Many old politicians I talked to seemed bamboozled by the recent flag protests. The film reels ran out for them with Paisley and McGuinness skipping off into the sunset. They don't seem to care much for these poorly made sequels.

Those same men seemed to have had an incredible amount of access to the main players in that blockbuster. There were quite a few stories that started with Gerry said to me... or Paisley cornered me...

Victory has many fathers, as they say.

Unionism has a hard time selling itself over there. There's so much green swirling about that the orange bit gets lost. It's too complicated that large numbers don't buy into the image of home that those rheumy-eyed men dream of.

Somehow, though, it strikes me that unionism needs to show the Americans it can enjoy the craic, too. Dances the jig, rather than absents itself when the party starts. That said, an alarming number of people seemed to have a poor concept of the border and these were supposed to be the movers and shakers. Perhaps its not surprising that unionism has to keep shouting about it, while the rest enjoy the shamrock 'n' roll.

Proof of the imbalance of support came at a breakfast briefing given by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. The queue of those seeking to have their pictures taken with the Shinner was noticeably longer than for the Dupper.

President Obama was as super-slick as you'd expect. Confident, charming, but only half-there. He always seems to me to be like that. Watching him in the flesh, you realise how absurd it is that so much rides on the shoulders of one man. Is he not trapped in the gilded cage? Sure, he can easily start wars that kill thousands, but how much can he do to right wrongs, really fundamentally change society for the better? Not much more than you or me, I suspect.

Not sure I should say this, but Michelle is a truly beautiful woman. So much more striking than she appears on the tele. When she entered the White House reception, wearing a 50s-style emerald green party dress, she lit up the room. The President's punching well above his weight.

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