Clinton Collects Irish Plaudits

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President Clinton walks with Irish president Mary McAleese in Dublin

Bill Clinton often says he's "loved every minute" of being President. And after watching waves of adulation sweep over him on his farewell tour to Ireland, it's easy to see why. About 20,000 people waited up to six hours in the rain and the cold to hear the President's 20-minute speech in the market square of this hardscrabble town by the Northern Ireland border. They cheered and shouted and waved American flags when he was introduced, and they repeatedly applauded during his speech, which was laced liberally with references to Yeats, Seamus Heaney, U2 and even the Corrs, Dundalk's own hot pop band with the hot girl singers. When he finished speaking, he was serenaded with "Danny Boy" by Irish pop-folk singer Brian Kennedy (the "voice of peace," a Belfast Catholic who's a good friend of Van Morrison, a Belfast Protestant) and a choir of sweet Irish colleens. Then there were fireworks in his honor as another band played and he hugged his wife and daughter on the stage.

What's not to like?

Clinton's advisers insist there is a real purpose to this trip — to get the stalled Irish peace process unstuck. But with Ireland being the only Clinton peacemaking effort being counted as a true success — the abrupt resignation of Israel's Ehud Barak on the eve of his departure a bitter reminder of his deep disappointment in the Middle East — this feels more like a victory lap. Clinton's eyes welled with tears Tuesday in Dublin as he listened to the Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern praise his efforts at helping Ireland. And even those who don't think he can do much to get the parties to make important concessions are glad he came. "He helps just by coming here," said one man in the crowd in Dundalk. "People love him here because he got involved in our peace process even though there was nothing in it for him politically."

Indeed, a common parlor game around Ireland is to figure where Clinton ranks in the Irish pantheon. "He'll always be the second greatest president after Kennedy," declared one Irish journalist. But another onlooker in the crowd at Dundalk stated, accurately enough, "He's done a lot more for Ireland than Kennedy ever did." Even Clinton's fateful dalliance with Monica did little to dull his sheen in this traditionally conservative country. "It was a witchhunt," "He's only human like the rest of us," and "It was a set-up" were common comments from the crowd at Dundalk. One man even noted pointedly, "You see Bertie Ahern with a new woman now, don't you?" It turns out that Ahern is long separated from his wife, but not divorced, even though that's recently become a legal option. (In his campaign, Ahern declared he would not divorce her because as a devout Catholic he's personally opposed.) But he now lives with his former administrative assistant, called in official press releases "his partner, Celia Larkin," who serves as the hostess at prime ministerial social events, including today's.

The President's huge retinue of Irish-American hangers-on (too many to fit on Air Force One, they came in a separate plane) also gives this trip a fin de régime feel. Besides the standard gaggle of congressmen (three senators and nine from the House), the entourage includes Clinton's favorite pollster, Mark Penn, super fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe, AFL-CIO boss John Sweeney, former New York governor Hugh Carey, sometime Gore legal adviser Jack Quinn, Democratic fund-raiser Peter Knight, even the owner of an Irish bar on Capitol Hill.

The biggest reason this looks like a vanity trip is that all the attention of the world and of Clinton's entourage is on the Supreme Court in Washington. Clinton finished speaking in Dublin about 10 a.m. EST, when, scuttlebutt had it, the court would rule. As the press pool passed by Quinn, he was just hanging up his cell phone. The reporters didn't even have to ask: "Nothing yet," he announced. Perhaps the surest sign that priorities are elsewhere came late Tuesday evening in Dundalk, after Clinton had finished a speech in which he'd coyly referred to the "manual count" of Irish Nobel laureates in literature, and was doing one final schmooze with the crowd. A member the President's normally stone-faced and sphinx-like Secret Service detail startled a group of veteran White House reporters by stepping up to them at a barricade and speaking to them in hushed, personal tones. His words: "Did the Supreme Court rule yet?"