Ideal forum: Ryan Tubridy doggedly seeks an apology from Taoiseach Brian Cowen

Here we go again, another excursion in search of vital signs of life. Brian Cowen's appearance on Friday's Late Late Show was expected to be some class of an address to the nation. We have been here before, in sight of a mirage in the desert of communication deficit.

Last year, he popped up early in the Late Late's autumn season without setting the nation alight. In June, he appeared on John Bowman's final Questions & Answers programme, presented with another chance to provide inspiration for the straits ahead.

Friday's forum was ideal; half the country tuning in to see Ryan Tubridy, a studio audience beside itself at being present for the occasion, everybody careful not to rain on Ryan's parade.

What we got was the best of Cowen under the circumstances, which in communication terms is fair to middling. There were a few hints that he is at last cottoning on to the fact that he must communicate with those he is governing. He didn't once issue the dreaded phrase "going forward" or mull over the "year-on-year deficit in the context of current spending and additionalities". Somebody has finally got through to him. He managed a 19-minute interview without ever lapsing into the jargon.

He appeared to be in good form, well scrubbed, looking fit after his holiday in the west. It's not as if he was returning to a doss at the office. Last week's polls show him to be the leader of a party in freefall from its position as the biggest and most influential in the state for 80 years. His own popularity stands at 17%. Satisfaction with his government is at 11%. He's doing well to keep up the brave face.

Tubridy wondered why the Taoiseach hadn't "gone on TV, looked into the eyeballs [and said] we're in the horror and I'm going to get you out".

Thereafter, Cowen made a point of looking into the camera at every opportunity, which jars slightly when done in the context of an interview, but at least he was trying.

Tubridy pursued him doggedly about the 'A' word. For the last year, Cowen has repeatedly been asked whether he should apologise for being at the helm in Finance during the ludicrous bubble years. Finally, Cowen admitted mistakes.

"Looking back now we should have taxed housing more than we did," he said. And: "If I knew then what I know now we wouldn't have spent as much."

That was as far as it went. Otherwise, there were more exhortations that Nama and Lisbon were, in their respective fields, the only games in town. He looked into the camera and said so.

Then Tubridy moved onto the drinking. Do you drink too much? "No I don't, not at all," he said. The host pursued him about rumours, but Cowen said he had no control over that.

Here was a chance to show a human side and declare that yes, he was annoyed that those kind of rumours had gained purchase. He let it pass, but did say that he was just trying to be "his natural self, to talk to people and to behave properly in the course of my public duties and relax with friends when I can". The reply garnered a round of applause, an achievement in itself under the prevailing circumstances.

Otherwise there was little to excite. He is communicating better, but improvement is incidental compared to the task at hand. And beyond the technicalities, he still has about him the smell of defeat, no small matter for both himself and the nation facing into the next 100 days.

The real star of the interview was Tubridy. He was dogged in chasing after the apology. He urged Cowen to talk in plain English. He showed he has the equipment to get stuck in when called up. Cowen probably didn't get his message across to the Irish people, but Tubridy certainly got his.