Having dinner with President Clinton is like taking part in a master class by a world renowned professor.
At Shanahan’s on the Green, in Dublin’s Stephen Green, last night the former president took a group of a half dozen or so Irish Americans and a couple of Irish through a seminar on pressing issues.
Irish business tycoon Denis O’Brien had set up the evening in Dublin prior to Clinton opening the Clinton Leadership Institute, at Queens University, in Belfast.
Over dinners of steak or fish and desserts of cheesecake or fruit, Ireland Fund honchos John Fitzpatrick and Kieran McLoughlin; Martin McAleese, peace activist and husband of the former Irish president; Irish American Democrats' head Stella O’Leary; Business and Finance Editor Ian Hyland, former US Ambassador to Portugal Elizabeth Bagley, and I made up the rapt audience.
Clinton, in top form, was quickly into stride. He had come from a meeting with Prime Minister Enda Kenny and was excited about Ireland’s progress our of recession, he told us.
First up were key senate races in Kentucky and Louisiana, the governor’s races in Texas and Massachusetts, and a special congressional race in Florida complete with arcane facts and figures and what percentage of every voting group would cast ballots down to neighborhoods, religious groupings, and ethnic make ups.
And that was just before dinner.
Afterwards there was a history lesson on Ukraine, a deeply insightful retrospective on the Irish peace process, a compelling insight into the political turmoil in America today, his sense of the Republican field for 2016, why charter schools are so important, what new mayor Bill de Blasio needs to do, and at least a half dozen other topics.
The conversation was off the record but the political insight and genius on view was not.
At 67-years-old the former president has not lost a step; intellectually he shines above any contemporary figure in American politics. Little wonder The New York Times recently named him the most popular political figure in America.
Most heartwarming is his love and devotion to Irish issues. The man who gave the visa to Gerry Adams in 1994 that kick-started the American role in the peace process still holds out the template he helped create of the Good Friday Agreement as an example to the world.
He sees it as the roadmap for how two involved powers can decide that ordinary people get to choose their own form of government with checks and balances built in.
He sees how such a finely calibrated model could have practical applications elsewhere in the world, even in Ukraine, where a similarly divided community and two separate outside governments, Russia and the West, battle for power.
He went back over that Gerry Adam's visa moment in his career, driven at the time by the realization that someone had to break the china, to get something started. He realized that he, as American president, had least to lose and jumped first.
The Irish have loved him for that ever since.
Despite all the forces arrayed against him on that decision – the State Department, FBI, CIA, British government – he remained steadfast that it could work both because nothing else had and because of his strong belief that nothing else could.
He was proven right, as he was on so many other issues. He is self-deprecating about his popularity, noting that politicians out of office are more popular than when they are in.
But he is not just the ex-president, he is very possibly the husband of a future president in wife Hillary.
America has never seen the likes of this family and the prospect of Bill back in the White House as First Man is exciting to so many.
At the end of the night he toured Shanahan's American presidential memorabila room which has numerous exhibits of various American presidents including himself and an original letter from Abraham Lincoln concerning an appointment to the Fighting 69th Irish regiment.
A land deed from long ago granted by a US president launched a disquisition on land purchase laws around the United States in the early 1800s. It was vintage Clinton, full of insightful information from long ago delivered with a history professor's precision.
One can see why after a sparkling night in his company he is once again on top in the political world. There are few enough extraordinary people left in American political life.
Bill Clinton simply towers above them all.
Back in 1991 I was privileged to co-host the first meeting at Fitzpatrick’s Hotel of Irish Americans for Clinton, a group dedicated to helping elect an obscure governor from Arkansas to national office. I never dreamed then that 23 years later a group of Irish, myself included, would be hosting him again as one of the most revered politicians in recent Democratic Party history.
Time marches on, but the Clintons still endure.
Outside Shanahan's as he entered his SUV a group of Eastern Europeans were walking by. They were enormously excited to see the former President, shouting excitedly in their own language. What did you mean I asked one of them. "Clinton, freedom," he told me again and again, "USA, we are free."
Not a bad legacy.