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That piece of luck if riding to power on the back of an economic disaster can be described as luck makes Kenny, on electoral mathematics, the most successful Fine Gael leader ever, the only one to trounce his rivals. But it also has done little to convince doubters including those in his own ranks that Kenny deserves his high position or has the skills to keep it. Vincent Browne, who hosts a popular political TV show, once suggested that Kenny, as opposition leader, was such a liability to his party that he should "go into a dark room with a gun and bottle of whiskey." Five months later, Kenny won the general election. Despite mounting evidence of his government's competence, a swath of the Irish political establishment remains unconvinced, ascribing every fresh achievement to luck. "He has had success in Europe, with a reduction on the interest rate for the troika [the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF], and catching French coattails on the banking debt, but does anybody really believe those achievements are down to Kenny's political nous?" wrote columnist Michael Clifford in the Sept. 8 Irish Examiner. "As of now, Enda Kenny continues to resemble an accidental Taoiseach."
At 61, Kenny appears every inch the alpha politician, with hair as thick as Mitt Romney's, an avuncular twinkle and a face equally suited to the somber and the celebratory. People trust him. There's no taint of venality and Irish politics has a long, ignoble history of politicians on the take. He is the longest-serving living member of the Dail, Ireland's lower house, with 36 years of experience. Yet few people saw him coming.
That is at least in part because like Angela Merkel, the first East German born woman to lead her party and country, Kenny doesn't fit his own party's image. He speaks with the lilt of County Mayo, a rural part of western Ireland, and goes hiking when he wants to think. He became a Member of Parliament by happenstance, after his father died, vacating a seat held by Fine Gael and endangering the tenure of the Fine Gael government of the day. He has never radiated ambition. "Take the job seriously," he says, "but never take yourself too seriously."
It seems that quite a few of his compatriots take him at his word. One insider recalls a dinner with officials from the E.U. and the IMF. Throughout the meal, the Irish guests listed all the defects of Kenny's government: "At the end of the meal, a senior official said you have one of the best administrations that he'd come across and itemized a whole series of things that had been delivered." Kenny reveals that other leaders tap him for advice, but he declines to name them.
Politicians rarely endure as long as Kenny, or attain high office, without a palette of skills, sensitive antennae and an iron constitution. Kenny's enduring good humor and busy schedule indicate stamina; his 2003 ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro attests to physical endurance. There must be some grit too. In 2010 he withstood a leadership challenge; once in office, he installed the most talented of the former rebels in his front-bench team. Kenny's isn't the neatest of governments ministers sometimes contradict him and one another; there was a messy fumble over cuts to health care but the raft of legislation passed in the past 10 months shows Ireland's a long way from Washington's gridlock.
So why do doubts about Kenny's leadership persist? An effective and engaging communicator in smaller groups, he is often wooden in broadcast appearances and Dail debates. His predecessor as Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, denied calling him a "fool" during one exchange; others are less shy of that implication. Mario Rosenstock, an Irish comedian and satirist, compares Kenny to the character played by Peter Sellers in Being There, whose simplicity is mistaken for profundity. "There's a touch of Chauncey Gardiner about him. 'I think what we need to do is we need to let the plants grow, and when the plants grow, the garden will be taken care of.' Right. 'And when the garden is good, Ireland will be good,'" says Rosenstock, mimicking Kenny's cadences if not his actual words.
It's easy to find Chaunceyesque passages in the transcript of Kenny's long sit-down with TIME. Here's an example: "If you have a good base of a thriving economy where people have the opportunity to do what it is they can do, which is be creative and different and helping others, that's the kind of Ireland that we like." It's also easy to find much that makes sense. He doesn't promise to restore Ireland to the illusory wealth of the Tiger years. "There was a veneer, there was a falsehood, it was built on the foundation of sand."
Joyless messages handed down from on high inflame other European capitals. Dublin has seen polite protests, but there's surprisingly little anger directed at Kenny himself. He walks to and from work, to increase his contact with the people on whom he is inflicting austerity. "Sometimes they give out a bit," he says.
There are cultural reasons for this apparent docility. The Irish are as inclined to emigrate as to stay and fight; there is also wide acknowledgment that Ireland's downfall can't just be blamed on politicians and bankers and that ordinary people got carried away by availability of cheap credit too. But they also warm to Kenny. "He's a person it's not really possible to dislike, and that's very important. It's a quality that not all of us have," says Bruton, the last Fine Gael Taoiseach, ruefully. "It's really good for the country that we have someone like that at this particularly difficult moment in the job of Taoiseach."