Imagine a world leader not just any leader, but a veteran forced to make tough choices about big questions on the economy and Iraq, and to spend close to a decade in office living with the consequences of those choices. Then picture that leader strolling, unannounced and without a visible security detail, into a suburban supermarket in the dying hours of a Friday afternoon, as shoppers, carts piled high, push toward the checkout with the determination of candidates converging on undecided voters. He stands between them and their escape to the weekend, hand outstretched.
Eggs and curses: that's the welcome most such leaders could expect. But this feels different. There's a ripple of excitement by the dairy goods, a frisson by the freezers, as word spreads: Bertie is here. The people of Navan, northwest of Dublin, respond to their Taoiseach the official title of Ireland's Prime Minister not with fatigue or ill temper, but with an awe and affection usually reserved for rock stars.
As Bertie Ahern kicks off his campaign for elections expected within weeks, he remains startlingly popular for a man seeking a third consecutive term. And if there's a reversal and he finds himself out of a job by the summer, he could be in pole position for the next major international post to come free. In 2004 he turned down calls to become President of the European Commission. He argued then, and reiterates now, that he's still got work to do at home, nurturing the boom that during two terms of the coalition led by his Fianna Fáil party has seen soaring economic growth, a doubling of national income and a plunge in the unemployment rate from 10% to 4.2%.
"How do you do it, Bertie?" asked a jealous and frankly incredulous Tony Blair last October. The British premier, who came to power a month before Ahern and will soon step down, unmourned by many who once supported him, was closeted with his Irish counterpart in Scotland, hammering out the final details of the St. Andrews Agreement on Northern Ireland, when Ahern's press secretary delivered the results of a new opinion poll. It had been taken in the wake of a scandal the Irish media inevitably dubbed the affair Bertiegate centered on loans Ahern accepted for personal use in 1993 and 1994 when he was Finance Minister. The Taoiseach explained that friends had stumped up the money to help him out after the breakup of his marriage had strained his finances; he also admitted that he didn't have his own bank account at the time, later adding that he had stashed this cash in a safe. It was the kind of scandal that would sink most politicians.
But Ahern's ratings didn't drop. They rose, prompting Blair's spluttered exclamation. Even the Teflon Taoiseach's opponents doubt he's pursuing a gilded lifestyle. A man of simple tastes, Ahern says his biggest indulgence is "a ticket to some good football match." Yet he is anything but a simple man. Quick on his feet and with a speedy grasp of policy, he's also a consummate politician. Charles Haughey, a discredited forerunner in the Taoiseach's office, described Ahern admiringly as "the most cunning, the most devious, the best of them all." Even so, voters seem to trust him. Frank Luntz, the U.S. pollster who has recently been taking the country's temperature for Ireland's national broadcaster rte, says Ahern gives "the impression of being human and personable and genuinely likable. While people may be disappointed with the government, they're not disappointed with him." Fiona Sherlock, just 18 and looking forward to voting for the first time, is happy to have met a hero at the checkout. "I'm not much on Fianna Fáil, but Bertie is a grand chap. He's one of us."
That sense of ownership is evident everywhere as members of the public, young and old, lean into the double-handed shake of the man they all call Bertie. Some pols "use security as an umbrella" to avoid contact with their electorates, says Ahern. "I'd go bonkers if I was stuck inside." Burnishing his everyman appeal is a gift for mangling sentences as thoroughly as President Bush: he famously warned against "throwing white elephants and red herrings" and "upsetting the apple tart." Ahern dresses like a man of the people, too. U2 frontman Bono has lobbied him on Africa and professes "enormous respect" for his countryman, who has committed to reaching the U.N.'s aid target ahead of schedule. But that respect isn't immediately reflected in Bono's nickname for Ahern: "the anoraked one."
Style icon or not, the Taoiseach cuts a dash internationally with his decisive role in Northern Ireland's peace process, which, he says, has "turned a corner" toward permanency. Despite his opposition to military action in Iraq, he has also managed cordial relations with Washington, allowing U.S. warplanes to refuel at Shannon airport while maintaining Ireland's traditional policy of neutrality.
Yet there are forces at work that could still upset Ahern's apple tart: not least, cheap labor and the ingenuity of entrepreneurs in rising economic superpowers like China and India. Ahern claims Ireland's economy has attained "critical mass": around 1,000 multinational companies have substantial operations located there, and for now life is sweet, with gdp growth of 5% expected this year. But financial confidence is dipping amid worries about overstretched borrowers and an overheated housing market; the country's infrastructure is inadequate, its health system rickety. If Ireland's economic miracle falters, its affable Taoiseach might not find such a welcome in the aisles.