By John Kelly
"Farewell, Bill, Hello, George". That’s how the Irish Examiner summed it all up in its front page headline after Al Gore had reluctantly conceded defeat in the U.S. presidential election. For Bill Clinton, after eight years in office, it was all over. He was almost yesterday’s man.
Even still, the Irish people are reluctant to bid him adieu.
In the midst of a long, damp and dismal winter, the Irish turned out in droves last week to show their appreciation for the yeoman work he did to encourage peace on the island of Ireland.
No matter where he went, there were few begrudgers except, not surprisingly, some of the leading figures within the the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, who were miffed because he did not meet with them officially.
The reason for the seeming rebuke should be obvious even to the most die-hard members of that party.
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The U.S. president greeted all of the parties that subscribed to the Good Friday agreement and joined in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The DUP hardly qualifies under those terms.
In addition, he was asked by a party member during his visit to Belfast why he allowed the Real IRA to continue raising funds in the U.S.
"Are you suggesting that I am soft on terrorism?" the president asked.
When the DUP man said that he was, Clinton just turned and walked away.
There is little doubt that there will be a crackdown on the Real IRA, now listed as a "terrorist organization" by the U.S. government. Because of the time factor, that crackdown is likely to be enforced by the Bush government.
But then, nobody can predict what Bush is likely to do, if anything much, in relation to Ireland.
Irish people, no more than the vast majority of people throughout the world, just do not know what to expect of George Bush.
Already most are prepared to concede that we will not have as great a friend in the White House as we did in Bill Clinton. The consensus is that no matter what George Bush does, or does not do, he will certainly not display any of the interest in the Irish question that his predecessor showed.
It is difficult to disagree with the consensus. It all points in that direction.
However, the great thing about the American presidency, no more or less than leadership in any other democracy, is that events tend to make the man.
Bush may seem to have no real experience of the world at large. Headlines here have particularly stressed the fact that he has never even been in Europe, or anywhere else, for that matter.
But does that really matter?
After all, he is the son of a former U.S. president who performed quite well in office. He must have learned something. If he did not, he should hardly occupy the position.
The last Texan who occupied the Oval Office was Lyndon Baines Johnson, known to generations of anti-Vietnamese war protesters. It was the bitterest war in American history. And yet, relatively few Americans, compared to other conflicts in American history, were killed.
It all ended with ignominious withdrawal from Saigon. It was a bitter war because it was ill-conceived and it was ill-conceived because one of the best American presidents ever on the domestic front knew as little as his ill-advised military advisors about the rest of the world.
LBJ was a Texan. He did not have to understand the rest of the world.
He was from Texas. The rest of the world is pretty irrelevant when you compare it to the Lone Star State.
After all, the Lone Star State is precisely what it means. It does it alone.
This is why Bush, the son of a former U.S. president, does not really have to know anything. The Lone Star State is powerful. The United States is the most powerful nation on the face of the earth in all of history.
Capital punishment, gun law, the rights of minorities anywhere in the world, from the Maldives Islands to Timor, do not necessarily mean anything at all to most Americans, so long as the GNP and the Dow Jones are in line.
That is why the majority of Irish people perceive the advent of Bush as president with definite apprehension.
They also realize that few American presidents did much for the place where many of them traced their ancestry. President Reagan made a colorful visit to a little village in Tipperary called Ballyporeen, but did practically nothing for Ireland.
John F. Kennedy did little or nothing at all. Though his sister Jean Kennedy Smith did a great deal.
The Irish people wish Bush well. He has a lot to do. The American people elected him, albeit not by a majority, but by the Electoral College, a system that makes some sense when you consider the questions: Without it, would any serious presidential candidate bother to visit any of the smaller states?
Whatever about that aspect of American electioneering, the Irish know the U.S. well enough to realize that its people and their forebears are from every corner of the globe. The Statue of Liberty would not stand where it does if this were not so.
Clinton proved that it’s still possible to use American power, money, and, most of all, interest, to help to eradicate causes of conflict throughout the world.
What he also proved most of all is that, not alone will the world be better off as a result, but America as well.
In short, he learned the value of foreign policy, not that it was ever a lesson that should have been lost on a former Rhodes scholar.
He learned to use the rest of the world in the interest of the U.S. And he realized that it was in the national interest to do it that way.
George Bush has a hard track to follow. Few in Ireland believe he will travel it as willingly as Clinton did. We reckon he will put Northern Ireland on the backburner.
But then, he is not Irish in any sense of the word. But he is the new president. The Irish can only wish him well.