WASHINGTON — Washington. -- When President Clinton travels to Ireland this fall, he will be inviting comparison with his political idol, President John F. Kennedy, who also went there in search of his family roots.
The similarities between Bill Clinton and Kennedy, however, pretty much end with their mutual Irish heritage.
Mr. Clinton's trip is billed as a diplomatic effort to encourage the peace process in Northern Ireland, reinforcing his embarrassingly slender credentials as an active world leader.
Sporadic violence recently halted the talks between the British government and Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, aimed at settling a guerrilla war that has raged for 25 years. But an awkward truce still holds generally, and the White House hopes Mr. Clinton's pending visit will help nudge negotiations along.
In late November Mr. Clinton will tactfully visit both Dublin in the independent Catholic south and Belfast in the British-ruled largely Protestant north and London.
He has taken a genuine interest in Northern Ireland, convening a conference to spur local economic development, allowing controversial Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams to visit the White House and raise money in this country and naming former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as his personal envoy there. U.S. relations with Britain, in fact, were strained by Mr. Clinton's symbolic acceptance of Mr. Adams, who is seen in London as simply a mouthpiece for terrorists.
But presidents don't fly across oceans one year before they are up for re-election without domestic politics in mind. American history is full of politicians who prepared for coming elections by visiting the Three I's, the ancestral lands of large American voting blocs -- Ireland, Italy and Israel.
Mr. Clinton, constantly trying to re-invent himself, sees this as an opportunity to take on the appealing role of son-of-immigrants, remind voters of Irish descent that he is one of them and bask in the glow of a little Kennedy nostalgia, too.
Mr. Clinton's Irish forebears left the old country in 1750, making his return to his roots more of a public relations stunt than an
emotional homecoming. The family reunion will seem a bit contrived, as is the case with many of the things that Mr. Clinton does.
Researchers have turned up some distant cousins eager to claim a relationship with the president of the United States and a supposedly ancestral home that is now run-down and uninhabited.
There was nothing artificial, however, about the warm welcome extended to Kennedy more than three decades ago when he became the first sitting U.S. president to set foot on the Emerald Isle.
The IRA's war to wrest Northern Ireland from British rule had not begun when Kennedy addressed the Irish Parliament in Dublin in 1963 on the safe topic of the important contribution of little nations in a democratic global network. The visit's focus was purely sentimental.
As the Hearst Newspapers' White House correspondent then, I accompanied the Kennedy entourage to Ireland. Local officials had painted and re-roofed the small house of his cousins and paved its mud courtyard in an effort to upgrade the family's image before the world. Kennedy, aware of the cosmetics, joked that he was glad his visit had some practical benefits.
His cousins gave him hot tea and salmon, over which he gushed enthusiastically. After a tour of New Ross, the little seaport town from which his great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, had sailed more than a century earlier, he thanked his hosts at dockside, standing near a hugely conspicuous, odorous dung heap.
One of the most famous quotations of the Kennedy era -- usually said, incorrectly, to have originated with his brother Robert -- came from President Kennedy's address to the Irish parliament. He recalled how George Bernard Shaw, speaking as an Irishman, had summed up the brave approach to life in his beloved country: '' 'Other people see things and say: 'Why?' . . . But I dream things that never were and I say: 'Why not?' ''
Kennedy's visit was an enormous success, both in Ireland and back home in the United States.
As for Mr. Clinton's visit, the Irish are doing a good job of containing their excitement, if they experience any. A supposed relative of Mr. Clinton's mother told a local paper that since the president was coming during the traditionally cold and rainy autumn, ''he had better bring his wellies [rubber boots].'' Kennedy had the good sense to visit in sunny June.
9- Marianne Means is a syndicated columnist.