THERE are times in your life in America when a sense of awe grips as you realize the sense of power this country can project. Such was the combined sense Ciaran Staunton, Kelly Fincham and myself, had as we slipped into the West Wing of the White House on a cold gloomy Friday afternoon last week.

We are the senior officials of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR), and we were there to meet Ed Gillespie, proud son of an Irish father from Donegal and President Geroge W. Bush's closest advisor.

With us was former Congressman Bruce Morrison, creator of the Morrison visa program and now a consultant to ILIR. Morrison has forgotten more about immigration legislation than most of us will ever know.

Our visit was facilitated by supporters of Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain, who has always been a staunch backer of immigration reform.

Despite the best efforts of his opponents to demonize him on the issue, McCain has stayed true to his belief that immigration reform for all is a necessity.

He appeared at three different lobby days for ILIR, and few who were there will forget the reception he received from over 1,000 ILIR supporters at St. Barnabas in the Bronx when he paid a visit earlier this year.

Later, ILIR helped raise $100,000 for his presidential campaign. Given the way the race is moving, it may well have been money well spent.

The West Wing is, I have to say, a disappointment. As a devotee of the TV show of the same name I expected long, graceful corridors, staffers buzzing to and fro and an enormous hive of activity.

Instead all was quiet, calm, very controlled. One would say almost say low key, except for the large gentlemen with earpieces standing around conspicuously.

We were ushered up a flight of stairs bedecked with photographs of Bush and along a narrow corridor to the office of Gillespie.

Gillespie himself emerged to meet us. He has had an extraordinary rise in Republican politics.

He began at the bottom parking cars at the Republican National Committee, and now he is the man who has replaced Karl Rove as President Bush's closest aide.

In between he ran the Republican National Committee and created one of Washington's most powerful lobbying firms, Quinn Gillespie, with Democratic counterpart Jack Quinn.

Gillespie remains very close to his ancestral roots. He has plans to buy and restore the house his father lived in in rural Donegal before he embarked for America.

Last year Gillespie wrote an impassioned piece for The Wall Street Journal calling for comprehensive immigration reform and cited the example of his father, a decorated Word War II hero, still alive, as an example of what immigrants can achieve.

"My father arrived by ship from Donegal, Ireland, in 1933, as a 9-year-old with nothing but the clothes on his back. John Patrick 'Jack' Gillespie was processed through Ellis Island. As a young man, he worked as a janitor," Gillespie wrote.

"Later in life, he started his own small business and made his children the first generation of Gillespies ever to attend college. He still can't walk very far today, because in 1944 Nazi bullets ripped through both his legs in the course of earning a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and a Silver Star for his adopted country."

Little wonder then that in Gillespie's office, which looks out on the White House front lawn, the first item to catch the eye is a framed old script entitled "Advice for an Irish Emigrant."

Gillespie listened closely as we made our case for immigration reform and, quite frankly, showed a knowledge of the nuances of the issues that very few politicians can master. He was accompanied by an official from the National Security Council who deals with the issue of immigration.

Our half-hour meeting went very well, and we at ILIR certainly know now we have a friend in the White House who would love to see movement on this issue.

That may not be too far fetched. There have been a number of meetings in recent weeks in Congress about passing some form of legislation this year. It will not be the big blockbuster bill that went down to defeat last year, but we can be certain that a major effort is underway.

Anytime one is privileged enough to visit the White House, it's impossible not to walk away with a new sense of the greatness of America and how its democracy functions at its highest level.

Gillespie is just another example of the son of an emigrant who has made it to the very top. What the Irish are seeking is an opportunity for this generation of Irish emi-

grants to contribute in the same powerful way that Gillespie's father did.

It is great to see that the son has not forgotten that.