By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — President Clinton’s visit to Ireland last week was a presidential paradox. It was as if two world leaders were touring the country — one enmeshed in sleaze and desperately fighting for his political life and the other feted as a peacemaker, enjoying a rare foreign policy success.
As the facilitator who nurtured the peace process to the Good Friday Agreement tried to bask in the warm afterglow of peace, American reporters hounded him about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton trailed his Irish roots and relished the tributes. It had been a long time since thousands waited patiently in the rain to give him a rousing reception like the send-off he got at his last official function in Limerick on Saturday, at the end of a six-day absence from Washington that began with a trip to Russia and a visit to embattled leader Boris Yeltsin.
Everybody wanted to thank him. He was the most powerful man in the world and in his interest in Ireland and capacity and eagerness to move the peace process forward was unquestioned. He was central in ending 30 years of bloodshed on the island.
As the visit progressed, Clinton appeared to shrug off his tiredness and get a charge from the adoring crowds who were eager to touch him.
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The visit to Omagh, a sensitive decision that could have backfired into criticism of milking the tragedy was a success.
It was a buoyant Clinton who traveled south for the second leg of his visit and the promise of more enthusiasm and the type of welcome that only superstars get.
Almost immediately, the Lewinsky sex-and-lies scandal cast its shadow. Conventions about not criticizing the leader on foreign trips were ignored when leading Democrat Sen. Joseph Lieberman launched a Senate floor tirade against his party leader. "It is hard to ignore the impact of the misconduct the president has admitted to on our children, our culture and our national character," he thundered.
At his first function in Dublin — a photocall in Bertie Ahern’s office in Government Buildings — a bemused taoiseach looked on as the White House press corps followed through on the overnight development.
In response, Clinton said: "I can’t disagree with anyone else who wants to be critical of what I’ve already acknowledged is inappropriate. There’s nothing that he [Lieberman] or anyone else could say in a personally critical way that I don’t imagine I would disagree with since I have already said it myself, to myself, and I’m very sorry about it, but there’s nothing else I can say."
It was the first use of the word "sorry" by an embarrassed-looking Clinton. Irish journalists asking questions straight afterward never mentioned Lewinsky and the exchanges were about his role in Ireland and his place in history as a result.
But the earlier two minutes of questioning set the tone for U.S. coverage. Ireland was sidelined and the Comeback Kid was back on the ropes. Clinton said in Limerick that the "demons of the past are losing their power to divide you."
It was a statement that had resonance for his own position as a man hunted at home by his own demons.
Later, the taoiseach commented that he had spent almost 14 hours with Clinton that day but those two minutes in his office dominated the media. It was hard to understand.
An element of the strong Irish support for Clinton is the hope that he will prove durable and remain in office.
If he is forced out, the rare conjunction of cooperation and empathy among Washington, Belfast, London and Dublin could be broken. It has been crucial for peace and the extraordinary recent economic progress.
During his visit, Clinton constantly underlined his transAtlantic interest, plugging Ireland’s skills, tourism and business in venue after venue. His promotion of all things Irish at every opportunity and the mutual backslapping with local politicians seemed to boost national confidence.
Who cared about a complicated story surrounding a dalliance with an unpaid 21-year-old White House intern — even if the emerging details about the sex-and-lies scandal appeared increasingly tawdry?
Clinton left Shannon as the tail end of Hurricane Danielle swept in to batter the Ballybunion golf links, where he had what may be his last relaxation for some time. Hurricane Monica awaited him in Washington.
As he left, one newspaper headline summed up the predicament of the man carrying home his Irish honors and plaudits to what is expected to be a further bout of contrition to stave off the crisis: "From Hero to Zero."cutline: