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Fulsome Praise for Clinton at Library Opening

Irish Times, November 19, 2004
By: Conor O'Clery

 

President George W. Bush may have felt he had stumbled upon a convention of Democrats in the heart of "Republican-red" America when he opened the William J. Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, yesterday.

But the audience of 30,000 people, including top names in the Democratic Party and countless "friends of Bill," gave the President a warm reception as he paid a generous tribute to his predecessor as an able, energetic and compassionate American.

The high point of the ceremony, held in pouring rain, was a performance by Bono who, accompanied by the Edge, sang "Sunday Bloody Sunday" in a tribute to President Clinton's peacemaking in Northern Ireland.

The opening of the $165 million glass and steel library became one of those "only in America" political events where bitter foes come together to honour each other with southern-style courtesy. Former presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter and their wives mingled easily with the current first couple and the two-term president who less than six years ago was facing impeachment. Former president Gerald Ford is ill and did not attend.

The four first ladies present, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush and Rosalynn Carter, made their way first to the open-air stage carrying umbrellas, like four friends out for lunch, as the trumpets of the U.S. Air Force Band played "Ruffles and Flourishes." Then their husbands, without umbrellas, strolled together through the rain as the band played "Hail to the Chief." They sat in a row, with George W. Bush, an arm on the back of Chelsea Clinton's chair, occasionally chatting amiably with Bill and Hillary Clinton.

In a series of speeches, the most fulsome praise for Mr. Clinton came from the president he defeated in 1992. George Herbert Walker Bush said that Bill Clinton won the White House through "sheer tenacity and gifted intellect" and always remained "the man from Hope who lifted himself and his family up and touched the lives of millions." Clinton was the "Sam Walton of national retail politics," he said, referring to the founder of Wal-Mart. "He made it look easy, and oh how I hated him for that."

Bill Clinton had been a little hard on his son during the recent campaign, but he had "forgiven him for that," concluded the former president, who stopped to give Hillary a gallant kiss as he returned to his seat.

The current president praised Mr. Clinton as an able and energetic American who had led the country with great optimism and had a great affection for the American people, an affection which was returned. He recalled the remark of a seasoned Arkansas politician who, when asked to account for Clinton's political success, replied: "He'll look you in the eye, he'll hold your baby and he'll pet your dog all at the same time." Clinton was so resilient, said Mr. Bush -- in the vaguest of references to the impeachment episode -- that his staff had a saying that "if Clinton were the Titanic, the iceberg would sink."

As he retold the story of how Bill Clinton met Hillary Rodham at university (Hillary told him that if they kept staring at each other they may as well get to know each other's names), Clinton reached for his wife's hand and seemed close to tears.

Bono then appeared, in purple shirt and clutching a giant green umbrella, and the four presidents and four first ladies got up to stand in a huddle of unlikely fans to watch as he sang the Beatles' "Rain." The U2 lead singer thanked Mr. Clinton for what he did "for the peace that is so nearly there" in Northern Ireland. "Many people made a lot of sacrifices for that peace," he said. "Bill Clinton didn't have to, he chose to."

Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush swayed together to the strains of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (about Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972) and the U2 song from the film The Gangs of New York.

Taking the microphone, Bill Clinton thanked Bono for singing about Northern Ireland. In his peacekeeping there and in Bosnia, "even when we fell short, we kept pressing forward," he said. He congratulated President Bush on his re-election and made an indirect plea for the Bush administration to seize the chance of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. "Mr. President," he said, turning to Mr. Bush, "I hope you get to cross over into the promised land of Middle East peace."

America, Mr. Clinton said, had two great dominant political strands -- conservatism, which drew lines which should never be crossed, and progressivism, which broke down barriers that should never be there. Hillary had all the power in his family now, he said, and Chelsea's life had given meaning to the second most important job he ever had. "I love you both so much. Thank you."

Also at the ceremony were Al and Tipper Gore and John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry, four plane-loads of Congress members from Capitol Hill and Washington's diplomatic corps, including Irish ambassador Noel Fahey.



© Irish Times, 2004.

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