Lives Remembered

Jim King: 'John Wayne of politics' was lifelong friend of Ireland

Jim King was a lifelong friend of Ireland. Picture from Northeastern University

WHEN the news came through that James B King had died, it hurt. Jim, as he was known, had lived a long and fruitful life.

His death came unexpectedly. As becomes a man who never stopped, he was repairing a granite wall at his home when he collapsed.

Not exactly how a typical 84-year-old plans an exit but there was nothing typical about Jim King.

Many readers will not have heard of Jim but those who have will know that he played a key role in Irish/American affairs.

He was a lifelong friend of Ireland. He took his lead on Irish politics from John Hume and Seamus Mallon.

Jim was a regular visitor to Ireland as a political consultant and was a member of the US Panel of Experts which monitored the progress of the Good Friday Agreement.

From Massachusetts, and a veteran of the Korean War, he was larger than life in every way as he stood about six foot seven.

Believe it or not he became a paratrooper to overcome his fear of heights. It didn’t work.

A committed Democrat, Jim was in the royalty box of the party.

His pedigree was impeccable - he canvassed for John F Kennedy and became a key adviser to Senator Ted Kennedy. He was also Chief of Staff to former US Secretary John Kerry when he was in the Senate.

He honed his organisational skills and became one of the best political advance men in the USA.

To say that Jim was a legend would be an understatement. His nature was such that he could plan a military invasion in a way that the targeted country would welcome it.

Jim King died aged 84 on June 8

In the best tradition of the Irish, Jim was also a storyteller.

When Jimmy Carter became President of the US, Jim accepted what would be the first of three Presidential commissions.

He was Chairman of the National Transport Safety Board responsible for the safety of all forms of transport from planes to trains.

His trademark humour was infectious. He was a great showman.

His hospitality was legendary too. This writer stayed at many of his various homes. And it was impossible to say no to Jim.

I guest lectured for him at the Kennedy School, Harvard, Northeastern University, Boston and Trinity College, Connecticut.

When the man from Hope, Arkansas needed an advance man he turned to Jim King. And when Bill Clinton became President he made Jim CEO of the Office of Personnel Management - the highest ranking civil servant in the entire USA. He tore up the rule book when in charge of OPM.

When the first Clinton visit to Belfast took place in 1995, it was only natural that the President looked to Jim King to ensure everything went smoothly.

And Jim excelled in that memorable role. I worked as his understudy.

Sensing trouble at the suggestion that Gerry Adams would shake hands with President Clinton on the floor of Mackie's, where the keynote address was to be made, it was Jim to who told me to sound alarm bells.

He said it was time for a judicious leak. The infamous handshake was moved to outside a bakery on the Falls Road. The rest is history.

Jim King helped engineer the famous handshake between Bill Clinton and Gerry Adams on the Falls Road in 1995

Jim was involved in all of the US peace conferences organised in the 1990s. At one such event I introduced him to the then Pro Vice Chancellor of Queen's, Mary McAleese. As it was with Jim, they became lifelong friends.

Jim was generous with his advice and steered this writer towards public affairs and public relations.

He was a giant of a man. Super smart but with a gravitas which was unrivalled.

On a visit to Moscow even the former strong man of the Soviet Republic, Leonid Brezhnev, had to crack a smile at Jim’s infectious humour.

Jim is gone but the stories about him will live on. He was the John Wayne of politics.

James B King died on June 8 and is survived by his wife Eleanor, five children and 10 grandchildren.

Tom Kelly

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Lives Remembered