Mar-a-Lago:I have known Brian Burns for over 30 years since he was a major player in the Irish community in San Francisco and I was a recent emigrant and starting off in the media business. Politically we are chalk and cheese, but the man is a giant among Irish Americans and much too polite to make me eat crow over lunch at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s winter White House residence.
There we sat outside in the South Florida sun at the Mar-a-Lago club on Friday afternoon as the world focused on the businessman upstairs waiting to take over the most important job in the world.
Yesterday The New York Times political correspondent Maggie Haberman confirmed what we had written on December 5, that Brian Burns would be named ambassador to Ireland by Donald Trump.
It was great timing as my wife Debbie and I and Turlough McConnell, a key Irish advisor to Burns, had arranged lunch at Mar-a-Lago with Brian and his charming wife Eileen.
I had been told it is $250,000 to join the Mar-a-Lago club and it is certainly a spellbinding place, a sweeping mansion and private club on 17 acres located between the ocean and a lake which is literally what the name means. There were originally 58 bedrooms in the mansion, and no expense was spared in its original construction. It is said all the gold leaf in the U.S. at the time in 1927 was used for the mansion.
In a downstairs room Burns introduced us to Reice Priebus, Trump’s White House chief of staff and key liason to the GOP, and Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and “enfant terrible” of the campaign in many eyes, now tasked with communicating a clear Trump message and still being widely attacked for fake news content on his Breitbart.com site.
It is in this almost empty space, save for a few tables, where the next four years of American history are being shaped. It is also where Kellyanne Conway and others work from, making it “the room where it happens” to quote the musical “Hamilton.”
Upstairs in the private residence Trump was apparently working on his inauguration speech and seeking to sound Kennedyesque in terms of a big vision according to reports. He would appear at an exclusive New Year’s Eve party at Mar-a-Lago, according to local sources.
The security going in was tight as a drum, car hoods and trunks popped, sniffer dogs and Secret Service heavily armed on patrol as Trump was on the premises.
Brian and Eileen Burns are frequent guest of the Trumps and spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with them. They have been friends with the president-elect for many years, and Trump speaks glowingly of them to friends.
Being able to reach the ear of the American president is key to a successful ambassador. There will be no fears in that regard for Brian Burns if he clears confirmation of which I have no doubt.
The Burnses were also among the first on the Trump train at a time when many in Palm Beach shunned him. There are those who still resent his brash, loud presence in a town where old money doesn’t talk but whispers.
But Brian and Eileen Burns are firm fans. They have socialized and conversed with Trump, knew of his plans early on and and are resolutely convinced he is what the country needs.
Eileen confesses that some of her own family were aghast that she supported him, but says the real surprise will be how effective he is at wielding power.
Brian Burns has the greatest collection of Irish art likely in the world. He is a son of South Kerry; his grandfather was born in Sneem. Eileen traces her roots back to Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, and make no mistake about it, if Brian is confirmed Ireland will be getting a dynamic lady in Eileen as well as a deeply committed Irish American in Burns.
They were soon asking direct questions about what was important in Irish American affairs, Brexit, Northern Ireland, immigration and American investment, and listening keenly to the answers. They are a couple who make clear their desire to read up and arrive in Ireland with the best knowledge at their fingertips. They also make clear they will be continue to speak to Irish America, an important and often forgotten aspect of being U.S. ambassador.
As to Burns’ likely attitude if and when he gets to Dublin, I can wager he will listen first above all else. That is his reputation and his greatest asset.
His father was Joe Kennedy’s private lawyer at a time when discretion was necessary. Burns has the same ability and has represented some of the best known VIPs in America, the Kennedys and the Hearsts for starters, but is always the soul of discretion.
He is such an insightful man you wish he was in the office next to the Oval Office to advise the new president. Nonetheless, he can get an awful lot done in Ireland.
His Palm Beach home is wall to wall of priceless Irish art a bedazzling mansion size canvas for Irish artistic genius added to also by sculptor Rowan Gillespie’s finest work. No doubt the embassy in Ireland will be graced by many of the art treasures as well as the residence in the Phoenix Park.
I left the outdoor lunch at Mar-a-Lago having talked much more than I intended, and realized this was the Burns way to listen and learn. It will stand him and his wife in very good stead when they arrive in Dublin.
Burns once asked Ambassador John Moore, in Dublin during the Nixon era, what he made of the job. Moore called it a “prelude to heaven” for an Irish American. I think the Burns family feels the same way.
The first painting you see on entry into the Burns home is a lavish scene from a ball at Dublin Castle in 1845 held by the British Viceroy. There’s a reason it hangs there. For Brian Burns the comparison is clear, “They are dancing while a million are dying of starvation,” he notes. “That’s our history too.”