Category: Archive

Star(r) turn!

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the fading light of last Friday evening, the White House began to take on an almost ghostly look, a creamy off-white hue. It seemed to almost shimmer in the gloaming. The lights were by now turned on upstairs. There were flower boxes on the circular balcony overlooking the South Lawn. The red blooms blazed one last time. The last color of the day. The cicadas and crickets began to strike up their nightly chorus in the bushes and trees. It was a most peaceful scene, the kind that you want to put in a bottle, capture, preserve and remember forever.

Down at ground level, President Clinton was trying to bottle it too. He didn’t want to leave. People crowded against the rope dividing him from the enthusiastic throng. An Irish crowd, not particularly impressed by a mere rope. The crowd followed to where the rope gave out. Hands reached out to shake the hand that had guided America’s effort to bring peace to Ireland.

Hillary Clinton, looking radiant, had long since vanished through the door. Her husband, on the loose now, appeared as he should have looked on a day described by the New York Times that morning as Bill Clinton’s "moment of maximum risk." He looked very tired. Still, he was smiling, and winning over this crowd a second time over.

Clinton spent real time this day of days talking and shaking hands. His personal troubles, spawned only a few yards away inside the great house and, at that very moment, spinning around the globe by internet and satellite, seemed as remote as the looks in the eyes of the agitated Secret Service agents.

Clinton was in his element. His element, at this moment of his presidency’s longest day, was entirely Irish. A little while earlier, 750 Irish Americans had cheered, applauded, whistled and roared as the Marine Corps band struck up "Hail To The Chief." The Irish crowd had turned up for the presentation of the Paul O’Dwyer Peace and Justice Award. Clinton was the first recipient of the honor named after the late Paul O’Dwyer, a political icon, both in Irish America and broader U.S. political life, who had passed away in his 91st year in July.

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The award ceremony had been scheduled for many weeks. The day chosen just happened to coincide with the release of the Starr report. The timing was either brilliant or brutal. For Clinton, it turned out to be the former. Here, in the midst of his personal and political agony, was a precious moment of redemption. Not surprising then that he stretched the moment to the maximum. No risk in that. Not with this crowd.

Clinton had given his speech. So too did the first lady, Vice President Al Gore, Senators Ted Kennedy and George Mitchell, and Paul O’Dwyer’s son Brian.

There were moments when Clinton sounded like a stump politician back in Arkansas, speaking at the county fair. He was forgetting the burdens of the hour, relishing the applause that broke out frequently, an applause that was amplified under the roof of the tent planted deep in the South Lawn’s sward.

Of all the speakers, Clinton was the one who defined the conflict on the Island of Ireland beyond the narrow definition of simply Irish violence or violence between warring Irish tribes. He pointed to the even more obvious eight centuries of conflict between the Irish and those who, by contemporary definition, would be described as British. This was no time to restrict the span of one’s accomplishment to a mere three decades.

A little over three years of those three decades ago, Clinton had stood in the same spot. It was at the end of the May 1995, Ireland/U.S. trade conference. The crowd had roared him on then as well. "Four more years," they chanted. On this Friday night, almost halfway through those four more years, there were those who wondered if Clinton would last even four more weeks. As one present put it, the evening had a whiff of "The Last Hurrah," about it.

Yet this was an opportunity, presented by fate, to remind Clinton that while Irish America expected much of him, it was also ready and prepared to give it all back. If Irish America had anything to do with it, the 42nd president would choose his own time and place to call it a day. He deserved no less for breaking the habit of all presidents before him — dodging the so-called Irish question.

Jimmy Breslin, who has chronicled life through an Irish American lens for years, summed it up thus in his Newsday column next morning: "Now Clinton came on, elated with these Irish people who have him his first pleasant series of sights and sounds since this life of his detonated. . . . Clinton spoke with no script and he spoke only of peace in Northern Ireland and what it could mean to the world; nobody wanted to hear anything else."

Clinton had in fact let one line slip. It could have been interpreted more than one way. But it seemed like a heartfelt thanks for a cavalry-style rescue. "Hillary and I will never forget what you’ve done for us today, and I suspect you know." More cheers.

The overwhelming flow of the day had been against Clinton. Tens of thousands of accusatory words in the Starr report. Details of sexual encounters in the White House that to many sounded like incidents out of some third-rate paperback novel for teenagers.

But here were the Irish, not for the first time in Clinton’s presidency, pointing the way to a brighter legacy. If the reception from this crowd wasn’t seen by Clinton as an exuberant command to fight like hell for his place in history, then his presidency was surely doomed.

Yes, if Clinton took his cue from last Friday there would be another chance. Indeed, he might someday look back to this Irish embrace as the one shining moment in a time climaxed by the most shameful humiliation. This was Irish America’s contribution to the best days of Clinton’s administration. By his own acknowledgment, the Irish days.

The remains of this particular day were just about hanging on. The bucket swing, hitched to a tree limb just beyond the boundary of the open-sided tent, was empty now. One or two people had brought kids to the award ceremony. As Clinton gave his speech, one of the children took great delight in the swing, legs kicking out, head thrown backward. Innocence in a scene replete with America’s first sinner, Ireland’s most powerful friend and an audience keeping the first stone firmly in its collective pocket.

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