Late night with the American pundit

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

“Say something more,” the burly taxi driver demanded after I told him the name of the Dublin hotel where I planned to stay.

“Don’t you know where it is?” I inquired, wondering what he meant.

“You’re that Yank on the radio,” he responded. Then I knew.

Americans from the Midwestern heartland never think they have any distinguishing characteristic, linguistically speaking, let alone a defining accent. But several conversations about politics across the Atlantic for Morning Ireland prompted the voice recognition en route from the airport. And, as we made our way to the hotel, the driver provided his broach-no-opposition opinions on all matters political.

On that trip I discovered that semi-regular duty for the most popular radio news program in a small country means that you keep running into people eager to pose their questions and posit their views, mostly the latter.

This little-league case of vocal-cord celebrity began serendipitously in 2004 as a result of a Hesburgh Lecture for Notre Dame at Saint Patrick’s College in Dublin. Before the trip, a producer phoned about the talk (a disquisition on that year’s presidential campaign), and he and his colleagues got into the habit of calling to discuss American political events of potential interest to an Irish audience.

Enlightening as the encounter with a cabbie can be — one other listener upon meeting me unforgettably remarked, “You sound taller than you are” — the on-air segments for the program share certain similarities. With the five-hour time difference, we’re usually conducting these journalistic colloquies at around 3 a.m. in South Bend.

Wake-up call

Though this hour might be prime time for a night owl, it’s light-years different for an early bird with an internal clock perpetually set to 5 a.m. To be safe, a producer in Dublin calls a half-hour before every interview to make sure I’m awake, if not alert.

Radio, I here confess, is the only permissible medium for these productions. Broadcast central is the kitchen table, where (swaddled in robe and nightshirt) I struggle to string one semi-coherent word after another, while holding a telephone to one ear and glancing at my notebook to spot a phrase or point worth raising.

On occasion, the odd hour can lead to moments of regret, sentences that defy diagramming or the intrusion of emotion. During late spring of 2008, in the pre-dawn morn after a full day of punditry, I got into a brief on-air kerfuffle about the purity of my political analysis. When I asserted my nonpartisan independence with gusto, saying I try mightily to be as fair as possible, one sensitive listener found the defense of my virtue worthy of comment.

“As an American living in Ireland,” the email began, “I am quite in tune with the rules of conversation here, which are quite different from those in the U.S. People do not cut off the interviewer in the brusque, inappropriate manner in which you did at the beginning of the interview.

“I was appalled at your initial reaction and comment, which would have been perceived as extremely rude and typically-American-in-a-bad-way here. Given the already strong anti-American feeling, your initial reaction surely added to the conviction here that Americans in general are rude and not at all gracious.”
Criticism, even at the upper decibel range, serves a purpose, and cools the creator’s temper. But, to be fair, responses aren’t always so thorny. Some are rosier and include thanks for my abandoning sleep to explain the intricacies of America’s democratic dance.

You still never really know what to expect when you hang up the phone. One day in the high season of the 2008 campaign, I got to my campus office later that morning to find a phone message from another Dublin-based radio outlet.

That day a channel-switching listener could have received an oral postcard from America both driving to work and driving back home sent from the same person — and probably wondered whether that disembodied speaker was the sole soul keeping up with politics across the Atlantic.

View from afar

Another time, a few hours after a report, a television producer with a charming brogue rang to ask if I might be the person who chattered away on Morning Ireland earlier. After providing positive identification, I heard these words: “Could you come to Washington this afternoon for an interview?”

At that moment (and 600 miles away), I concluded that American geography might not be a required subject in the Irish educational system. Yet as I slouch towards anecdotage, I’ve come to realize what my odd-hour radio days mean. Always unscripted, these extemporaneous exchanges have forced me to reconsider how others view America, our hopelessly complex campaign system and the utter unpredictability of politics.

Although my light-slumbering, long-suffering wife is certain to file a dissenting opinion, you might even say this trans-Atlantic talking is worth losing sleep over.

Bob Schmuhl is Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame and director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy.