Clinton research trove reveals golden memories of Ireland

America Letter: former aides recall early days of peace process for history project

The journalistic dictum that the more comfortable you make people, the more they will reveal applies to the world of academic historical research too.

Nowhere is this more true than in the 134 interviews conducted for the Clinton Presidential History Project, a treasure chest for researchers seeking behind-the-scenes nuggets about Bill Clinton's presidency.

The interviews with former Clinton cabinet members and senior aides, conducted by scholars from the University of Virginia’s Miller Centre over the past decade, were released in two batches last month.

There are some gems in there. Hillary Clinton was the first first lady to have an office in the West Wing. Roy Neel, chief of staff to Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, recalls that shortly after their 1992 election victory there was a rumour that Clinton's personal adviser Susan Thomases wanted to put Hillary in the vice president's traditional office and Gore out in the Old Executive Office Building next door. "That pissed off everybody, including the Gore people," Neel recalls.


Total loyalty to allies

US senator Alan Simpson recounted Clinton's "total loyalty" to political allies, telling the story of how the president returned the favour of support from Mike Sullivan, the governor of Wyoming – "where Clinton was not popular" – in the New Hampshire primary election by appointing him ambassador to Ireland.

"When he did that, I was there in Boston, among all those Democrat Irish Catholics," Simpson said.

“They said, ‘Mike Sullivan? Shit! I helped Clinton do this or that.’ ‘I was the precinct captain of ward number 10.’ ‘Jesus, who the – God Almighty.’ There was anguish; it was fun to watch.”

Northern Ireland, where the peace process was one of Clinton's greatest achievements, features prominently in this trove. The most detailed recollections come from Nancy Soderberg and Tony Lake from Clinton's national security council, the two members of his administration who worked closest on the process.

Soderberg speculates that without Clinton peace would not have come as quickly to Northern Ireland: “He sped it up by a decade.”

She asked Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams once if Clinton had been president in the early or mid-1980s whether he could have made a difference in Northern Ireland. "No, we weren't ready," Adams replied.

She remembers how the British reacted furiously to the Clinton White House issuing a visa to Adams to speak to Irish-American hardliners in the US to see if he was serious about an IRA ceasefire.

Clinton received a long letter from Rod Lyne, a national security adviser to British prime minister John Major, the morning he was deciding whether to issue the visa.

The letter referred to all the women and children the IRA had killed and “something about the Christmas spirit” with the message: “How could you do this?” They did it anyway.

In the late 1990s Soderberg ran into Major on a plane and sent a note up to the first-class cabin. He called her up front and they had tea. “You’re right; you did the right thing,” he told her.

Lake recalls with some amusement how the Americans prepared carefully for meetings between the British and Sinn Féin by privately suggesting in advance points that each side could raise with the other.

“Then they’d get into the room and take one look at each other, and the talking points would go out the window, and fur would be flying and they couldn’t get past hundreds of years of history and the ‘curse of Cromwell’,” he said.

He remembered one conversation, with either someone from the Irish or British side, where the topic of Bosnia came up.

“This guy, who had just had another blow-up, said, ‘Why can’t they (the Bosnians) get along? What’s the matter with these people?”

Christmas 1995 visit

Many of the former aides fondly remember Clinton’s Christmas 1995 visit to Northern Ireland, the first by a US president and a pivotal moment when the people, who turned out in their thousands to see him turn on the Christmas lights in Belfast, showed they were ahead of the intransigent politicians on the road to peace.

"An electrifying experience," said national security adviser Samuel Berger; "the high point of the first term," said Lake; "the most phenomenal trip we took," said Marcia Hale, assistant to the president. "Those trips to Ireland – it was like The Love Boat," said Patrick Griffin, assistant to the president on legislative affairs.

“Loves it,” said Hale of Clinton’s relationship with the Irish people.

That famous night in Belfast almost two decades ago made Lake, who had an English father and a mother with Irish blood, remember family occasions and the centuries-old divisions.

“I remember sitting on the stand,” he said. “There was a big Christmas tree and the tree was green and the ornaments were orange and just thinking about my parents who, when they would argue, it always came back to Cromwell.” You can do your own search among the treasure here:

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times