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Sunday Political Brunch: The Irish Connection - January 7, 2018

Sunday, January 07, 2018
Mark Curtis, GoLocalPDX Contributor

It was apparent in my trip to Ireland, that there is still great reverence for U.S. President John F. Kennedy. While there have been a number of U.S. Presidents with Irish lineage, he is certainly the one who was essentially 100 percent Irish, and Catholic as well. The Irish have had a huge footprint on U.S. politics, so let’s “brunch” on that this week.

“The Kennedy Bust – Galway” – President Kennedy visited Ireland in June of 1963, just five months before he was assassinated. Just two years later in Galway, a monument was dedicated in his honor (photo above). In June 1965, it was announced that the park at Eyre Square in Galway would be renamed he "John F. Kennedy Memorial Park." I was there this past week and photographed the bust of JFK. It is amazing to me that 50-plus years after his death he remains such a revered figure at home, and abroad. We saw other photos and memorials to President Kennedy as well, including at the Claddagh Museum.

“Reagan” – The history of Ronald Reagan reminds me of that great musical lyric by the famed “Irish Rovers,” that I heard while I was in Dublin: “It is the biggest mix-up you have ever seen, my father he was orange and my mother she was green.” In Reagan’s case, it was the opposite. His dad was an Irish Catholic from Tipperary (green), and his mom was an English/Scottish Protestant (orange). Either way, Reagan treasured his Irish roots and loved his Irish whiskey and card playing with House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (D-MA). While they were political foes, they had a pact to be “friends after 5 O’clock!” Oh, to be a fly on the wall for those get togethers!

“Retail Politics” – Tip O’Neill’s bromide about, “All politics is local” still rings true today. Members of Congress may run on national issues, but it’s really bringing home the bacon in their individual districts that really matters. I’ve covered controversial figures such as Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), who were very popular at home, but derided elsewhere. People always asked me, “How do they keep getting elected?” Well, the mail gets delivered on time and no one’s Social Security check gets lost. A good Congressional office makes that happen for the folks at home. For the boss, it’s political gold!

“You Wanna Be Where Everybody Knows Your Name” – The theme song from the popular TV show “Cheers” is a classic example of Boston-Irish politics. I remember being at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000, at a breakfast where Senator Ted Kennedy got up and led the crowd in singing some popular Irish songs. People ate it up. You got the sense this is how he worked the Irish pubs in Massachusetts. The Kennedy’s were good at this - “I am a man of the people in a pub; even though I’m unspeakably rich!” It’s now in its it fourth generation. The last time I interviewed the latest family member, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) in 2013, he looked me in the eye and said, “Just call me Joe!” The Irish charm is enduring.

“The Kennedy Magic” – I found it fascinating that 54 years after the Kennedy assassination, he’d still be such a revered figure in Ireland. But as the most Irish President – and the only Catholic President in U.S. history - he’s still something of an anomaly and that is enduring for a lot of people. I remember meeting Senator Ted Kennedy when I worked in the U.S. Senate in 1993. He was with former Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul Kirk when we met, and really wanted me to talk to Kirk, and not Kennedy. His son Rep Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) was very much the same way, wanting to focus on the people around him and not the Kennedy name. It was weird, but probably a strategy aimed at humility. It’s an ironic, but effective brand.

“O’Clinton” – President Clinton’s family life was complicated, to say the least, but he was an Irishman! His father William Blythe, died three months before Clinton’s birth. His mom was Virginia Cassidy who later married Roger Clinton, Sr., the future President’s stepfather. In any case, with the Blythe and Cassidy bloodlines, Bill Clinton had plenty of Irish in him. He went to Catholic elementary school, but later practiced as a Protestant. Maybe all this family conflict was his motivation for Northern Ireland peace. He appointed former Senator George Mitchell, (D-ME) to negotiate the Good Friday Accords between waring Catholic and Protestant factions in Belfast in 1998. We took a Black Cab Tour of Belfast in December and our cabbie Tom – a lifelong Belfast resident – said, “It’s a million times better!” though more work needs to be done.

“O’Bama” – In 2008, Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American President of the United States. We all know, it was a bit more complicated than that. His dad, Barack Obama, Sr, was black and from Kenya, while his mom, was white and from Kansas. Her name was Ann Dunham and she was of Irish, German, Scottish, Welsh, and Swiss decent. But it was clear, the future President’s Irish bloodlines were strong.

“This Irish Reporter” – I’ve been blessed. Now in my 41st year in mass media, I’ve had the privilege of covering so many of the politicians named here – Irish – or not! Politics is colorful in many communities, and I’m proud of my Irish heritage and the people I’ve met because of it. But politics – like so many of our big cities – is a melting pot, constantly evolving and changing. I’ve been blessed to cover so much of it. More to come!

“Why All This Matters” – You must wonder, how much does ethnic politics still matter in the U.S. and elsewhere? Walls and fences, you’d never thought would budge, are now coming down. As I’ve always pointed out, more white American voter cast ballots for Barack Obama in 2008, than voted for Al Gore in 2000 or for John Kerry in 2004. Then again, for a long time it was hard to fathom winning a Mayor’s race in such Irish strongholds as Boston or Chicago, without winning the Irish vote. Today, Rahm Emmanuel – a Jew – is Mayor of Chicago; and for 21-years until his death in 2014 – Mayor Tom Menino, an Italian, presided over Boston. So, the times, they’ve been a’ chnagin!

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