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White House / WHITE HOUSE

For Candidates, the Pitfalls of the Parade

Why St. Patrick's Day is not an automatic vote-winner.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., accompanied by wife Joan, and a horde of secret service bodyguards marches down famed State Street during Chicago's St. Patrick's day parade on March 17, 1980.(AP Photo/Cek)

The presidential candidates are all being cautious about St. Patrick’s Day. With the most festive day on the Irish-American calendar fast approaching on Saturday, none of the candidates has announced plans to participate in any parades--they're even skipping the hundreds of thousands of voters who will turn out for Chicago’s parade only three days before the critical Illinois primary.

Given the history of presidential candidates and the Chicago parade, the candidates are wise to skip that event. Many still shudder at the treatment of Sen. Edward Kennedy when he ran in the Illinois primary against President Carter in 1980. Kennedy was backed by Democratic Mayor Jane Byrne, who used her position as chairwoman of the parade committee to not only invite Kennedy to march but also to block an invitation to Carter because, she said, he is “an Englishman.” But the stunt backfired badly. Although Kennedy was Irish and Catholic, the crowd was not happy to see him. There were shouts of “Where’s Mary Jo?”--a cutting reference to Mary Jo Kopechne, the young woman who drowned in Kennedy's car when he drove it off a bridge in Chappaquiddick in 1969.

The scene was so ugly that by the time Kennedy--who was wearing a bullet-proof vest because of threats--reached the reviewing stand, a huge gap had developed between him and the mayor. And in the primary the next day, Kennedy suffered one of his most humiliating defeats, losing to that “Englishman” Carter, 65 percent to 30 percent and giving the president 155 of the state’s 169 delegates.

 

Other candidates have used the parades to better effect, as documented in The Wearing of the Green, a history of St. Patrick’s Day by Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair. President Taft went to Chicago in 1910 to address a St. Patrick’s night banquet after the parade, the first president to recognize the growing importance of the Irish vote. President Truman saluted that political clout in 1947 when he went to New York City and became the first president to march in a St. Patrick’s parade. And John F. Kennedy, when he was planning his run for president, reached out for support on the West Coast when he addressed a dinner of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in San Francisco.

The political pitfalls for candidates are always there, even for candidates who are trying to reach out and be seen as celebrating the Feast day of Eire’s patron saint. A case in point is a clumsy effort present on Friday on the campaign website of candidate Ron Paul. “Join us for St. Patties Parades in the area,” says the headline atop a listing of six parades in Illinois. It is enough to anger anyone Irish enough to know that “Pattie” is a girl’s name. And St. Paddy was no girl.

Hillary Rodham Clinton already had impressive Irish credentials from her work with her husband, President Clinton, who used St. Patrick’s Day to work for an end to the troubles and bloodshed in Northern Ireland. But when she wanted to show that she was enough of a New Yorker to run for a Senate seat from the state, one of her most important stops was to march in New York’s parade in 2000. When she was elected, however, she chose to skip the big parade in the city and marched instead in a smaller parade upstate just to avoid getting dragged into a New York City battle over the inclusion of gay marchers.

Although President Obama has no plans to march in any parades this year, he has dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to march in Pittsburgh’s parade. The president has already brought a touch of Chicago--and a new twist to official celebrations of the holiday--to the White House. In 2009, he ordered the fountain on the north lawn dyed green for the day, much as the Chicago River is turned green every March 17. Obama also can claim a pretty successful year in terms of establishing his Irish bonafides. In May, he made a triumphant visit to tiny Moneygall in County Offaly, the very place his great-great-great grandfather, the shoemaker Falmouth Kearney, left 161 years earlier to build a new life in the United States.

The townspeople were so thrilled to claim him as kin that they shot a video to popularize the Corrigan Brothers song, “There’s No One as Irish as Barack Obama.” Sipping a Guinness in Ollie Hayes’s Pub on Main Street, surrounded by Obama campaign memorabilia and even a bust of his face perched atop the bar, the president reveled in his distant Irish connections, proclaiming himself “O’Bama.”

To mark St. Patrick’s Day, the president will be receiving the traditional crystal bowl of shamrocks from the visiting Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. Because the holiday falls on a Saturday this year, the event, which brings prominent Irish-Americans to the White House will be on Tuesday.

St. Patrick’s Day is complicating politics this year in another way. Seemingly unmindful of the date, Missouri Republicans scheduled their caucuses for the holiday. After protests, Jackson County and the city of St. Louis--both of which have large St. Patrick’s Day celebrations--were allowed to move their caucuses to another, less festive, date. Their caucuses will be March 24.

But for all the modern pitfalls, today’s candidates are unlikely to have the ground taken out from underneath them. That happened to President Taft when he made his historic visit to Chicago in 1910. Chicago’s Ancient Order of Hibernians carefully brought to the United States a piece of what they called “the ould sod” for Taft to stand on when he made his speech. For days before Taft’s arrival, the piece of sod was on display, drawing thousands, many of them Irish expatriates who wept at the sight of their homeland. So excited were they that they stole the sod before Taft arrived. Today, campaign strategists hope their candidates have much surer footing as they toast St. Patrick--and the 45 million Irish-Americans who can make the difference between electoral victory or defeat.

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