An Irish Homecoming, Of Sorts, As Clinton Makes Last Official Visit

Posted: December 23, 2000

DUBLIN — Editor's note: The following piece appeared in only one edition of The Inquirer on Dec. 17. We thought it was good enough to rerun so more readers could enjoy it.

* Ten minutes is not enough time to have a pint in an Irish pub. So President Clinton ordered only a half-pint of lager when he stopped in at Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern's regular watering hole in Dundalk, Ireland. Clinton was touring Ireland at an American fast-food pace during the last official visit of his administration.

These days, Ireland is the exception to the justifiable European criticism of the Clinton administration's failings in global negotiations, ranging from the establishment of criminal courts to global warming. But here in Ireland, many are nothing but grateful for the President's involvement in an era where many in the international community had given up hope on resolving the conflicts over Northern Ireland.

The Irish extol Clinton's willingness to get involved in sorting out "the Troubles." There is something very Irish in understatedly naming years of violence and civil strife "the Troubles," an expression more suited to an unplanned pregnancy in a small town. Likewise, there is a very Irish humbleness that seeps into the praise of the President, the man awkwardly referred to as "the most powerful man in the world." Commentators and politicians appear not to believe their good fortune that "you journeyed all the way to here - to visit us?" Perhaps the Irish praise Clinton so because they had become used to expecting so little from their American "cousins."

Such enthusiasm is hard to swallow for an American used to being cynical about her politicians. But President Clinton's involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process has made him immune to criticism here about any of his transgressions, personal or political. In a country with a legendary historical disdain for monarchs, one tabloid welcomed Clinton as "the uncrowned king of Ireland."

The visit was filled with accolades and well wishes, like a final run around the stadium for a gold medalist. News commentators on Ireland's national television station, RTE, noted that people stood in the rain waiting to see the motorcade go by - not unusual in a country where people stand in the rain for most things. Still, the crowds were impressive and testified to widespread adoration.

Even in Temple Bar, Dublin's trendiest new entertainment and shopping district, the twentysomething owner of a modern furniture store shuttered her shop to watch the President's motorcade and explained excitedly that she "saw the top of Hillary's head" as the limousine sped by. Another woman two generations her senior describes Clinton as "charismatic" and glows as she describes the President's smile. After a month of following American electoral confusion, she asks: "Should he not remain president for another term?"

Like so many Americans who visit Ireland, Clinton sang "Danny Boy" and tried to invoke his Irish heritage, however slight. Years earlier, the candidate from Hope, Ark., had circulated a photograph of his teenage self shaking hands with President Kennedy. Now, by invoking his heritage, he again attempted to invoke this ghost of the last American president to garner such Irish favor.

Indeed, it is rare here that a conversation about Clinton does not turn into one about Kennedy, "the President from Ireland," as he is generally thought of here. The Kennedy family's experience emigrating to the United States is glossed over in Ireland, and JFK is made to appear to have walked on water from the docks of Ireland into the White House.

In the days before the Clintons' arrival, one retired Irish executive recalls shaking JFK's hand during his visit to Ireland and comments that "Kennedy was one of ours." JFK's photograph still prominently welcomes visitors to the Dublin airport, although New York's Kennedy airport contains no such homage.

As the President toured Northern Ireland, there was uncertainty about the future of American involvement in the peace process. Along the way, the U.S. Supreme Court released its ruling on the U.S. presidential election, and the Irish Times described the first family's visit as a "wake for the Clinton presidency."

Expressing the severe doubt concerning George W. Bush's lack of foreign-affairs experience, on this visit Ireland passes the political torch to Hillary Clinton. The martyred wife's presidential possibilities are discussed with more seriousness here in a country that already has seen two women presidents.

Perhaps the reaction to Clinton's visit is an attempt to create another American hero, to invoke the Kennedy magic and myth once again. But it is a homecoming for someone who never lived here and whose ties here are as Irish as the woolen "fisherman" sweaters manufactured for the tourist trade. Despite this hollowness, can all the hype - the photo opportunities of having a half-pint in the local pub, the mournful singing of "Danny Boy" - result in anything more than a Christmas gloss put on years of struggles over the peace process? Clinton's 10-minute stop for a pint - or in his case a half-pint - in a pub with the Irish prime minister may have been symbolic - but in a country where it can take 10 minutes just to pour a pint in a pub, this stop could have been no more than mere symbolism.

Now that the President is gone, it will be up to the locals to continue the talks and to deliver the present of peace that this American Santa heralds. Such progress would be a fitting aftermath to a Clinton administration that has taken bold action to involve America in resolving a controversy that hits close to home for so many.

Julie Kay is an American lawyer living in Dublin.

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