An Irish Farewell

It's hard to blame Bill Clinton for getting a little misty-eyed. In small hamlets on the road from Dublin, hundreds of villagers turned out last week in the blustery chill to cheer and wave. When the president finally reached the border town of Dundalk, a crowd of 50,000 packed the central square as American and Irish flags billowed in the wind. "A large part of my heart will always be in Ireland for all the days of my life," Clinton said. When the crowd sang a melancholy rendition of "Danny Boy," Clinton didn't need the sheet of lyrics someone had tacked behind the podium. He sang heartily, arms around daughter Chelsea and wife Hillary, who wiped away tears. Afterwards, when fireworks lit up the skies, Clinton plunged into the crowd, seeming to want to shake every hand.

Last week's trip--which also included a stop at the Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast, tea with the queen at Buckingham Palace and a shopping spree along London's Portobello Road--was more symbolic than substantive. Though Clinton continued nudging the parties along the route to peace, there was little solid progress. The new Assembly still faces collapse if three issues aren't resolved: the nature and extent of reforms to the province's police force, the pace of British military de-escalation along the Irish border and the question of how the IRA should dispose of its weapons.

If the trip was Clinton's last as president--aides haven't ruled out a quick jaunt to North Korea--it was a fitting swan song. Clinton has made an unprecedented three visits to Ireland and has spent countless hours on the phone brokering deals. He could always count on an ego boost from the adoring crowds. In 1998 he basked in adulation in Limerick, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when he was reviled back in Washington. Last week he and Hillary recalled an emotional trip in 1995, when they lit the Christmas tree in Belfast. Now with Clinton's peace efforts in the Middle East unraveling, his work on the Good Friday accord may stand as one of his greatest foreign-policy legacies.

But Clinton's victory lap was blotted out by other news from home. He stayed up late into the night to watch his vice president, Al Gore, finally concede to George W. Bush. The next afternoon as Clinton strolled down Portobello Road with his family, a man shouted out to him: "You should run again!" The president could only shrug and smile. On the plane ride home Thursday night, Clinton was in an expansive mood, chatting with reporters for nearly an hour. One reporter presented him with a box of Bewley's tea and a toy model of Air Force One. "What I need is an automated tape of 'Hail to the Chief' so I know when I'm going into a room that I won't be lost," Clinton quipped. In these last days, aboard the plane that's ferried him around the world for eight years, he was very much at home.

An Irish Farewell | News