He has stayed silent for decades, and now Christopher Hyland, the deputy national political director of President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and architect of the candidate’s historic Irish American outreach, has stepped forward to talk about his groundbreaking work. In recent months he also stepped up to help ensure the success of this year’s New York St. Patrick’s Day parade. Hyland talks about his multi-faceted, remarkable life. Before he was elected, Bill Clinton engaged the Irish American community like no other presidential candidate ever did before.
He made campaign promises – a visa for Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams; a U.S. special envoy to help broker peace in Northern Ireland – and he kept to his word. The Irish had unprecedented access to the Clinton White House, and the president reveled in their embrace. His leading role in securing peace in the North is one of the highlights of his presidency, and the warm Irish-Clinton relationship continues to this day.
But it didn’t always come easy. And, truth be told, the alliance almost didn’t happen at all given the powers in the 1992 Clinton campaign who were steadfastly against their candidate having anything to do with Northern Ireland and possibly rupturing the “special relationship” the U.K. and U.S. had enjoyed for years.
But the Irish and Clinton did hit it off, thanks in large part to the non-stop efforts of one man who would not take no for an answer because of his certainty that, by working together, both candidate and constituency had much to offer the other.
Christopher Hyland, 68, ultimately served as the deputy national political director of the first Clinton presidential campaign, taking a leave from his thriving home textile business in New York to head to Little Rock to support his old college acquaintance from Georgetown University, “someone who I always thought would be president,” said Hyland during a recent interview in the Manhattan showroom of Christopher Hyland Incorporated, one of the largest importers of luxe Italian textiles and other high-end home furnishings in the U.S.
Hyland’s faith was well-placed. He was one of the first recruits to the Clinton campaign, worked tirelessly on ethnic affairs in particular, and served on the transition team for the White House, chairing 11 presidential conferences.
Afterwards, out of the frame for a position in the administration, Hyland returned to New York to his life partner, Constantino Castellano, and stayed mum about his role in creating the Clinton Irish connection and encouraging peace as a rallying point for Irish Americans.
He kept abreast of what was happening in the North, and took satisfaction in the knowledge that the relationships he developed with politically minded Irish Americans significantly helped to bring about peace.
The decades passed. Hyland didn’t join any Irish organizations, didn’t attend dinners, never sought awards and was more or less unknown in the New York Irish American community until a few months ago, when the opportunity arose to co-host a book launch party in his Chelsea apartment with the American Ireland Fund.
Hyland had been following the politics of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade for years, and thought if he sprinkled the party guest list with a cross-section of local Irish leaders, including those from the parade, maybe a new connection or two might be made which in turn could lead to greater harmony each March 17 on Fifth Avenue.
Little did he realize that in the weeks after the party, he’d be called on to provide vital behind the scenes assistance using his vast political and religious contacts to help ensure the success of this year’s parade.
The renewed engagement in Irish American issues got Hyland thinking: maybe it was time to step forward and talk extensively about his role in President Clinton’s Irish outreach. There seemed little reason not to.
His work is part of the public record. President Clinton, in his 2004 autobiography My Life, wrote that “Chris started by buying about 30 ethnic newspapers and located the leaders mentioned in them. After the primaries, he organized a fundraiser in New York with 950 ethnic leaders, then moved to Little Rock to organize ethnic groups across the country, making an important contribution to victory in the general election, and laying the foundation for our continuing unprecedented contact with ethnic communities once we got to the White House.”
Former Irish TimesWashington, D.C. correspondent Conor O’Clery highlighted Hyland’s role in The Greening of the White House, his definitive book about Clinton’s Irish awakening, revealing the initial difficulties. And Nancy Soderberg, Clinton’s deputy national security advisor, commented that Hyland’s job was a “thankless one.”
“When Clinton took the mantle of change, he rose to the occasion and singularly did something so remarkably special,” says Hyland.
“Not just for the Irish but for the American people and the people of the world. What happened in Northern Ireland is an example for the world, and I’ve always derived a great sense of pride from the events that took place there after Clinton won the White House, knowing that I substantially began the journey.
“But believe me when I tell you,” he adds, “that many, many people were against it ever happening.”
Politics has coursed through Christopher Hyland’s blood all his life.
He’s from Salem, Massachusetts, born into a family of politically connected Republicans who always, Hyland recalls, saw the need to reach out to all sections of society.
“My parents nurtured action, a world view,” says Hyland. “Giving a voice to the oppressed elevates us all.”
His family knew the Kennedys who Hyland fondly recalls.
“I talked sailing with John Kennedy,” he says. “I still have a tie that he gave me. His words ‘what can you do for your country’ informed me.”
Hyland’s childhood saw him attend boarding schools in New England and Switzerland, and travel to places such as Syria, before enrolling in the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service where he encountered a fellow student named Bill Clinton who was a year ahead of him.
“I wasn’t in his inner sanctum, but he ran for student body president and I campaigned hard for him. I went door to door and canvassed for him,” says Hyland.
“I think that he was not only a standout person, but anybody who had any political sense could see that his personality would evolve over time and that he would become a force to be reckoned with.”
Clinton was a naturally gifted politician Hyland says – even though he came up short in his bid for student body president, a defeat that he shares with Hyland who lost the same race the following year.
“My memory is that I met Bill after the campaign, and I told him that perhaps he should turn his energy towards applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, and that one day he would run for U.S. president and I would help him,” Hyland remembers.
“I always found him congenial. I can’t say we were close friends; we were acquaintances. But he was a good person. I remember him helping a student who was sight impaired to learn and study in German. I always felt one day he would run for president.”
Hyland was occasionally invited to events in Little Rock when Clinton was governor of Arkansas; he was also a guest at the Democratic convention in 1988 when Clinton gave the nomination speech for Michael Dukakis – an appearance that was widely panned at the time and didn’t bode well for his political future.
Hyland had called Clinton to urge him to run for the presidency, and after he announced his candidacy for the 1992 race, Hyland was invited to Little Rock to become one of the 14 founding members of the campaign’s finance committee. He told the candidate he should travel to New York to meet moneyed Democratic influencers, but at the time, New York wasn’t waiting with open arms.
“The minute I began animating for Clinton I received very robust calls from people trying to distract me from helping him,” Hyland says.
“It was made clear to me that the governor of our state [Mario Cuomo] did not support Clinton and did not want him to be president. It was made clear to me that Senator Daniel Moynihan was also opposed. I did not care. I was a private citizen and could do what I wanted.”
Hyland formalized his role in the campaign, taking an unpaid job as Clinton’s deputy national political director. His textile and design business was thriving, “and I didn’t want to be beholden to anyone. I wanted to work without a salary, affording me greater rein,” he says.
Hyland’s father had served in several political postings in Massachusetts. The one lesson his son learned was campaigns can have catchy slogans and lots of funding, but if they don’t connect with voters on a real level nothing else matters.
“What I observed,” Hyland says, “was that some people in the Clinton campaign were obsessed with everything but mainstream voters. How could we win if that was the case? So I instinctively began making calls in all directions to different ethnic communities, and I got a great response.”
The Irish American scene was especially fascinating to Hyland. Three-quarters Irish with roots in Co. Waterford, he had always felt an awareness about his heritage during his formative years, and surmised that the Irish and Clinton could work well together if given the chance. A regular reader of theIrish Voice and Irish Echo, he phoned both publications and instantly formed a friendship with the publisher of the Voice,Niall O’Dowd, who suggested that Hyland reach out to another prominent Irish American, former Congressman Bruce Morrison.
“And of course there were other people, like John Dearie who had the Irish forums,” says Hyland, “and the O’Dwyers [Brian and Paul] and Bill Flynn, Boston Mayor Ray Flynn and the philanthropist Chuck Feeney. They were eager to be part of helping Clinton win the White House because I encouraged them to fully engage the campaign on issues of importance to the Irish community.”
However, forces inside the campaign weren’t exactly thrilled to have a bunch of Irish Americans on board with a specific agenda that ran contrary to U.S. foreign policy at the time. America’s involvement with Ireland, particularly Northern Ireland, had been bland: nice platitudes on St. Patrick’s Day, and no interest in interceding in the North because the U.K. would strongly disapprove.
“So here I am, coordinating with the Irish Americans who want things like a U.S. peace envoy, and a visa for Gerry Adams, and I can remember writing papers, with peace as the goal, to the campaign about this,” says Hyland.
“And there was pushback. We had three candidates running for president [George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot the other two] and you could win by only a fraction of the vote, so every vote counted in my mind. Even though I was admonished for pursuing the Irish I pressed ahead anyway.”
Though he expresses respect for Clinton’s campaign manager David Wilhelm and deputy national security advisor Nancy Soderberg, Hyland says they were opposed to hitching the Clinton train to Irish America. [Both eventually became enthusiastic supporters, and Soderberg and became the point person at the National Security Council on Irish issues.]
“It was explained to me in no uncertain terms that House Speaker Tom Foley and other leaders weren’t interested in this and wanted to keep the status quo, and we shouldn’t pursue this in any real way,” he says.
Hyland, however, had a trick up his sleeve that harkened back to his days with Clinton at Georgetown. They both studied under Father Richard McSorley, a professor and activist who was noted for his commitment to the Catholic peace movement.
“We were both big fans of McSorley’s teaching,” says Hyland. “And I thought that perhaps Clinton wasn’t entirely happy with the time he spent in England as a Rhodes scholar, when everything was happening in Northern Ireland. So I definitively thought that he could be open to helping to bring peace there.”
Indeed he was, encouraged by his interaction with the Irish American community. Clinton pledged to appoint a U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland and also issue a visa for Adams during an Irish campaign forum in April of 1992 hosted by then New York State Assemblyman John Dearie.
In the weeks prior to Clinton’s victory, Hyland says he was infuriated by talk within the campaign that the candidate’s Irish platform would eventually be sidelined and forgotten. During the transition the rumbling grew louder.
Hyland remembers meeting Warren Christopher, Clinton’s incoming secretary of state, in Little Rock, “and he knew what I had been doing. I detected from him a very clear disdain. He just had no interest at all, even though the campaign made promises.”
Determined to keep the Irish agenda in the loop, Hyland arranged an emergency Irish conference in Little Rock between members of the transition and activists such as Morrison, O’Dowd, the O’Dwyers, Mayor Flynn and Feeney.
“There were forces who wanted to jettison the whole thing and I wouldn’t allow that,” Hyland says.
“All of the Irish Americans I worked with, when given the opportunity to rise to the occasion they did. They weren’t paid lobbyists or ambassadors or anything like that, just concerned citizens who wanted to effect change.
“If I hadn’t worked from within the campaign to let this happen, it wouldn’t have happened. So I wasn’t going to see it taken away from them.”
As it turns out, when the transition wrapped up Hyland found himself out of the running for an effective position within the Clinton administration. “You can’t move forward in an environment that isn’t supportive so I removed myself,” he says.
“My whole thing was advocating for people and the core things that drive them. And not everybody in the campaign liked that.”
Hyland returned to New York, grew his business and had intermittent contact with members of the Clinton administration such as National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and Bruce Lindsey, the president’s senior advisor. He was also in touch with Ira Magaziner, one of Clinton’s top aides who worked with First Lady Hillary Clinton on an abortive health care reform policy, but otherwise a life importing fabrics and plush home furnishings and selling them to the rich and famous continued.
It wasn’t a life-long aspiration of Hyland’s to become a purveyor of luxury goods. He joined the National Guard after graduation, traveled the world, climbed to base camp on Mount Everest and spent time in graduate school. He printed up business cards that said “Christopher Hyland, International Marketing” and traveled on sales calls to places like Iran.
On another trek to the Himalayas he purchased some exotic fabrics that caught his eye, brought them back to New York, and began a new career.
“I used to have things delivered to my apartment because I had no warehouse. I kept the business very small and very controlled; I’ve never taken bank loans or had silent partners,” Hyland says.
“It started modestly and continued to grow. We pursued the concept that you should provide the finest quality.”
Christopher Hyland Incorporated is headquartered in the Decoration & Design Building on Third Avenue. The showroom is a paradise for those who appreciate intricate, unique and supremely beautiful fabrics, many of which originate in Italy. Hyland’s business, which includes showrooms in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dallas, also engages in commission weaving, whereby mills create new textiles based on Hyland’s ideas gleaned from his world travels.
It goes without saying that such luxury comes at a cost. Hyland’s showroom is open to architects and designers shopping on behalf of clients who think nothing of spending hundreds of dollars on a single yard of fabric.
Hyland’s offerings can be found in some of the world’s most famous homes – he supplied textiles to the Clinton White House – and his client list is a mile long.
“Someone who I really enjoy is Sharon Stone,” he says of the actress. “She is a woman of great taste.”
His other customers through the years have included the king and queen of Holland, Bette Midler – “so elegant and smart” – Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, Woody Allen and a woman who Hyland didn’t recognize at first.
“She came in and had such a great personality and look. I told her she looked like she stepped right off a stage. Sure enough she did. It was Donna Summer and I didn’t know it,” says Hyland of the late queen of disco.
Hyland and Constantino Castellano, together for 38 years, became immersed in Manhattan’s dynamic social scene, supporting charitable events and opening their 4,000 square foot apartment, filled with art and antiques, for numerous causes. Each year Hyland co-chairs with interior designer Iris Dankner Holiday House, the city’s largest design show house which raises money for Evelyn Lauder’s Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
In September of 2015 Hyland, a committed and practicing Catholic, hosted a book launch for Pope Francis: A Photographic Portrait of the People's Pope, written by an Irish Jesuit, Father Michael Collins. The American Ireland Fund and Annette Lester were also on board to co-host. The party not only launched the book, but also Hyland’s return to Irish America.
The annual headlines emanating from the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade over exclusion of an Irish gay group and the attendant protests bothered Hyland more and more as the years rolled on.
“In Ireland there was a very unfortunate, centuries old cultural environment that strongly persecuted unwed mothers, persecuted their offspring, looked down on divorced individuals and gay individuals. There was a vicious attitude there towards these people,” offers Hyland.
“Let me say that I am proud to be a Roman Catholic. I believe in the fundamental message of Jesus Christ which is love of everyone, and acceptance of everyone. We are all images of God, both in nature and lightness.”
The book launch, Hyland thought, would be the perfect occasion to invite people who were involved in the parade. Hilary Beirne, the parade’s executive secretary, was in attendance, and stayed in touch with Hyland after the party.
At the time, the new parade leadership had approved the inclusion of the Irish LGBT group the Lavender and Green Alliance, finally ending the 25-year ban, but the parade was embroiled in other controversies, namely anger among some of the parade’s affiliate groups who charged that the march was moving away from its heritage of honoring St. Patrick towards a more secular event. Other disputes resulted in restraining orders and a lawsuit which remains unsettled, and the problems were threatening the logistics of this year’s march.
The required NYPD permit was a particularly worrisome issue for the new parade leadership because members of a parade committee elected by affiliates were also seeking to obtain it.
Hyland went into action, reaching out to a number of contacts help ensure that the permit remained with the official parade leadership. One of them was former New York Governor David Paterson “who happens to be Irish and proud of it,” says Hyland.
“I hosted a dinner party at my house on December 26and he attended, and we talked about the parade. He was happy to use his contacts to help keep the parade on track.”
Hyland also spoke with New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm, who arranged a meeting earlier this year with members of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s inner circle, including his long-time aide and director of intergovernmental affairs Emma Wolfe.
The meeting was attended by Dromm, Hyland, Beirne and St. Patrick’s Day Foundation co-founder Sean Lane, who stressed the importance of the mayor fully supporting the parade and its leadership now that the Irish LGBT ban was lifted. The mayor announced earlier this month that he will march in the St. Patrick’s Day for the first time, and he’ll do so twice: once with the city’s uniformed services, and again with the Lavender and Green Alliance.
The parade leadership settled on a perfect choice for grand marshal this year: former Senator George Mitchell, who brokered the Good Friday peace deal in Northern Ireland. Getting Mitchell involved, though, was no sure thing. He needed to be fully convinced that the LGBT controversy was settled once and for all. Otherwise, he had no interest in leading the parade.
Hyland again offered his assistance. “I certainly didn’t know the senator well. I had met him a couple of times, briefly. His wife had chosen Hyland fabrics for their apartment,” he says.
With the approval of parade board chairman Dr. John Lahey and members of the board, Hyland called Mitchell to ask him if he would lead the 2016 parade as grand marshal.
“I spoke to him about the parade. His first concern was about inclusion. I assured him that it was all inclusive, and what a wonderful honor it would be if he was grand marshal,” said Hyland.
Hyland counts Cardinal Timothy Dolan as a friend, and also had email exchanges with him about the parade. “And let me say that he has been very supportive. He is a wonderful man,” Hyland says.
Hyland introduced Lavender and Green Alliance co-founder Brendan Fay to Dolan at a party the cardinal hosted at his residence last month for the St. Patrick’s Day Foundation. “Cardinal Dolan said to Brendan, ‘Any friend of Christopher’s is a friend of mine. You are welcome in this house,’” Hyland said.
Returning to the Irish American scene has energized Hyland. “It’s been a lot of fun,” he says. “I’ve met incredible people: Hilary Beirne, Sean Lane, Dr. Lahey, Frank McGreal, Frank Comerford and so many more. All just outstanding.”
He’ll be on Fifth Avenue this March 17, marching for the first time and reflecting on all the work that has brought him to this point.
“Oh, I wouldn’t miss the parade, marching with so many great Irish organizations behind the fabled Fighting 69th!” he says enthusiastically. “It’s a day we can all be so proud of. God bless St. Patrick.”