A reflective and sometimes wistful-sounding Bill Clinton largely steered clear of campaign issues last night at a Manhattan event honoring him for his contribution to the Irish peace process.
Though he briefly thanked an introductory speaker for complimenting his wife’s engagement with Irish issues, including the peace process, and made a glancing reference to her earlier appearance at the Irish American Presidential Forum, the former president made no other allusions to her candidacy.
Instead, he focused upon the Good Friday Agreement, which was reached 10 years ago. He invoked the memory of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who he said had told him after shaking Yasser Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn in 1993, "You do not make peace with your friends."
Clinton suggested that Rabin’s sentiment had played a significant role in his decision to issue Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams a visa to come to the U.S. in early 1994. And he praised Adams for having operated "with good faith" afterward, admitting that, "If he hadn’t, I would have looked like a fool."
Clinton also referred to the incongruously close working relationship that has formed at the head of Northern Ireland’s devolved government between Adams’ party colleague Martin McGuinness, an erstwhile IRA commander, and Ian Paisley, once the most hardline of pro-British unionists.
"When Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley came here joined at the hip like Siamese twins, I thought, ‘Rabin is smiling down on us from heaven,’" he said.
As to his own role, a soft-voiced Clinton said, "I got a lot more out of this than I gave. It was a joy. Every single minute."
He added that the pleasures even included his first meeting with the famously belligerent Paisley. He merely said hello, he recalled, before being treated to a verbal onslaught:
"For 20 minutes, I got it with both barrels. I didn’t have to worry about forgetting my talking points, and falling asleep was not an option."
The former president was not entirely self-deprecating, however. When he spoke about the contribution of his special envoy George Mitchell to the peace process, he referred to the former Senate majority leader as "an inspired choice."
He added that because Mitchell’s ancestry included Irish and Lebanese strains, "he was well prepared genetically for this. He understood the poetry and the BS"
Diverting at one point from his memories of the peace process, Clinton alluded to the strength of the economy in the Republic of Ireland and contrasted it with America’s state of economic health.
"I expect sometime within the next three years, the Irish Republic might be giving foreign aid to the United States," he said light-heartedly. "Lord knows, we’re entitled to it."