Sunday 18 March 2018

Bill & John : Why they were our favourite presidents

Their unbridled optimism inspired Irish people, writes Sam Smyth

Just a year after promising that the first man on the moon would be an American, John F Kennedy made history in June 1963 as the first serving US president to land on Irish soil. That defining moment two generations ago was redefined nearly 32 years later when a remarkably similar president reconnected the umbilical cord linking Ireland to the US.

Bill Clinton, the 42nd president, stopped more than the traffic on his historic visit to Ireland in November 1995 -- his arrival in Belfast was confirmation of the end of the Troubles.

Irish people marvelled at the unquenchable optimism of these Herculean world leaders, rekindling hope in a small country more at ease recalling 800 years of heroic failures.

Kennedy and Clinton, in their different ways in different decades, promised a future where can-do is an article of faith driven by self-belief.

Clinton was hewn from the same Mount Rushmore rock as Kennedy and each president worked tirelessly for Ireland after being beguiled by rapturous crowds on their visits here.

They shared talents beyond spellbinding oratory and vote-grabbing charisma -- both were matinee-idol handsome and each was drawn to women who were mesmerised by them.

Comparing his visit to Berlin from where he flew into Ireland, Kennedy told his scriptwriter Ted Sorensen: "In Berlin, the girls along the street, along the curb in the motorcade, were different to the pretty girls in Dublin."

Sorensen said: "In Dublin he (Kennedy) could see them mouth the words as he went by, 'God love you'. In Berlin, he felt they were mouthing something much more earthy, which I won't repeat.

His welcome in Co Wexford, at Dunganstown and New Ross, was equally as rapturous.

When Albert Reynolds was visiting the White House, Clinton couldn't keep his eyes off a guest at the St Patrick's Day party, Irish actress Roma Downey.

"The president will remember her next time," noted an Irish official to a US Secret Service agent, who replied: "If there were not so many around he would be offering her a guided tour of the Oval Office."

After Kennedy's visit in 1963, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and George W Bush dutifully followed and now Obama will make the journey from the White House to a proverbial mud cabin in Ireland

The office of the president of the United States is not an oval shaped room in the West Wing of the White House but a moveable feast that follows the incumbent.

Which means that when he is travelling abroad a US president can dispense the sort of patronage that is usually delivered from Washington. Taoiseach Sean Lemass discovered this when he met Kennedy in June 1963 at the US Embassy in Dublin.

What was to have been a low-key social trip by the then Taoiseach to Washington later that year was transformed into a high-powered visit by a head of government.

Kennedy's "thank you" for the welcome in Ireland was delivered alongside Lemass waving to cheering Irish Americans from a motorcade through the US capital.

And a generation later Clinton opened every door in Washington for the Irish when the prime ministers of much wealthier nations had to wait for months for access to the White House.

Covering Clinton's first visit to Ireland in November 1995 was a privilege and an eye-opener for many of us hard-boiled by the apparent hopelessness of the Troubles.

Somehow Belfast was transformed from a city where cynicism encrusted itself like soot to the buildings to a glittering metropolis where anything just might be possible.

More than the decorations dazzled us when Clinton turned on the Christmas lights at Belfast City Hall. The Christmas tree had been shipped over from Belfast's twin city Nashville, Tennessee, and, for the first time on his home patch, Van Morrison sang 'Days Like This'.

I remember watching all this with the now mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who was then a reporter with the 'Daily Telegraph'. We had a small bet: I wagered that Van Morrison's then girlfriend, Michelle Rocca, would appear on stage while he was performing.

Johnson said she couldn't get past the serried ranks of armed police and US Secret Service agents but they all stood back as Rocca took her place on stage near Hillary Clinton.

Boris Johnson yelped "cripes" -- recalling that she had once presented the European Song Contest and noted that she added chutzpah to a star-spangled evening.

At Mackies Metal Works in west Belfast, two children, one Protestant and one Catholic, each read a message to Clinton before 500 invited guests.

Catherine Hamill recalled how her father Patrick had been shot dead by Loyalists in 1987.

"My first daddy died in the Troubles," she said. "It was the saddest day of my life. I still think of him."

Clinton, no more than the rest of us, could barely hold his composure after that heart-stopping appeal from a little girl.

Next day back in Dublin, the big issue when Clinton arrived for a well-flagged drink at Cassidy's pub in Camden Street was whether he would have Guinness or Smithwicks.

Pictures of Clinton holding a pint of Guinness in Dublin appeared all over the world and gave the brewery's marketing team an early Christmas present in 1995.

Clinton has become a regular visitor to Ireland after his second term in office and the Irish people will never forget his commitment to them. He was a long-time admirer of Kennedy and studied his predecessor long before he was first elected president in 1992.

Clinton likes to quote from Kennedy's speeches and his favourite is from his visit to Limerick on June 29, 1963: "This is not the land of my birth but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection," said Kennedy

Both of Ireland's favourite former presidents could deliver that line with equal conviction.

Irish Independent Supplement

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News