Leo and the politically curious case of the reluctant could-be Taoiseach
He seems caught between his belated youth and the burdens of office, but he shouldn't have to choose, writes Donal Lynch
Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30
Would you give up the time of your life for career advancement? Would you subjugate your youth to your ambition? Those might be the questions that Leo Varadkar asks himself as we all puzzle over why he won't throw his hat into the Fine Gael leadership race. The stars are aligned. The polls show we want him. The chance may never come again. He's in the political equivalent of what mountaineers call the death zone now. Why not push all the way to the summit?
In terms of parsing his state of mind, you could look between the lines of his own words - he's said he doesn't think he'll be a career politician and, more recently, that he hopes the opportunity to become Taoiseach will not arise in the next five years. But you could also look at the man. When he got involved in the heave against Kenny five years ago, he did not have the life he has now.
In the last two years he has undergone one of the most profound changes an adult can go through, in coming out. It is the feeling of finally being able to breathe. He has a relationship now - something that would have seemed unimaginable, growing up, to a lot of gay men of his generation.
In recent months he's attended a rock concert, danced at the Pride street party, attended a nightclub with an unprintably pornographic name, and generally socialised with a gusto one just couldn't imagine in a Taoiseach - the selfie requests alone would render such venues unbearable for him after a while if he attempted to do that as Enda's successor. He looks like he is having a very good time. The kind of good time he maybe couldn't have had when he was young and in the closet and doing all sorts of hours as an overworked medical student, junior doctor and budding politician.
He was middle aged when he was born - he's said in interviews that he told his mother he wanted to be health minister when he was seven. Now, all these years later he's ageing backwards, like Benjamin Button. He's finally young. And the office of Taoiseach - as Spike Milligan once said of his knighthood - is "so horribly ageing".
We assume that politicians are boundlessly ambitious, but ambition is a fickle flame. It burns constantly in some people. For others it flickers and wanes, depending on the point that they are at in their lives.
We often think about how these issues affect women in their careers - Sheryl Sandberg's bestselling book, Lean In, explored the subject. But these issues affect men too, and a whole barrage of factors, ranging from age, to new fatherhood to the ordinary vicissitudes of grief, love and death can affect how a seriously a man might be prepared to offer himself up to his career.
When Leo was part of the heave against Kenny five years ago he may have had the summit in his crosshairs. For the moment, perhaps, he is content to enjoy the view.
He's been spoken about for a long time now as a future Taoiseach, he seems impervious to criticism, he's a brand unto himself. Eighteen months ago party sources reported that he was "on track" to become Taoiseach. As time has gone on this impression has only solidified. A Paddy Power/Red C poll in May showed that Fine Gael voters want him to succeed Kenny. Another Irish Times poll put him 10 points ahead of Simon Coveney.
He is a one-word brand. He's seen as straight-talking, to the point of bluntness, in a profession characterised by obfuscation and evasion. He was the sole gay TD who survived in the election. He's got the soothing trustworthiness of a policy wonk, his sexuality and relative youth give him just a pinch of cool to offset his young fogeydom, and he just has more of what passes for individualism and star power in Leinster House than any of the rest of them. He would be a very believable, calming leader to a lot of people right now.
Despite his famous social oddness he's considered attractive (Waterford Whispers recently had us forgiving his failings after he was voted 'most dateable'), another massive novelty in Leinster House.
Yet now, with the office of Taoiseach beckoning to him on the doorstep, he doesn't want to come in and will settle for a goodnight peck on the cheek.
As he launched his sweeping plans for reform of the social welfare system last Thursday he sighed that he was waiting for the moment when him "sitting on the toilet" would be linked to the leadership race.
This reluctance is actually part of the appeal. Someone who doesn't seem to be furiously scrabbling for power, as most politicians do, is curiously alluring.
He has always seemed like a consultant, whereas the rest are salesmen. And perhaps, like a consultant, he has a better insight than we do in what would be the healthiest thing.
Politics is an all consuming profession. It doesn't allow lots of breathing room for personal growth and rose smelling. You are constantly scrutinised, vilified and judged. The difference between a minister, with some semblance of a personal life, and the life of a Taoiseach and statesman is huge.
JFK spoke about the "heavy and constant burdens" of office. For Leo it would be another monumental transformation on top of the one he has just undergone.
The changes of perspective associated with coming out are, for many gay people, as profound as having children.
The new life that unfolds is intoxicating and filled with new possibilities. It would be to Leo's great credit, in fact, if he were grasping these possibilities with both hands. This is probably as much about us as it is about him. We are inherently judgemental about politicians socialising - think of Brian Cowen and the 'hungover' radio interview.
We conceive of coming out as a single moment, when in fact it's the first step in a process that takes years. And in an era of camera phones and social media there is always the possibly that Leo would be recorded or mocked as he goes through this very ordinary and necessary process.
If he ascends to the very top his personal life, where he goes on holidays, who he's going out with, will be tutted over in a way that hasn't really happened yet.
But, just as America got its head around a basketball-playing president and Canada got its head around its yoga-practising premier, we should be able to imagine a night club-going minister.
Leo is our best and most credible candidate for Taoiseach. At this juncture he seems caught between the impending burdens of office and the unmissable moments of his belated youth and if we force him to choose, the country might be the loser.