WASHINGTON — As the water in the fountain in front of the White House flowed green in honor of St. Patrick's Day, President Obama nominated Pittsburgh Steelers' owner Dan Rooney as U.S. ambassador to Ireland, choosing a lifelong Republican who was a staunch supporter during Obama's presidential campaign.
Rooney, 76, endorsed Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton during their hard-fought contest to secure the Democratic nomination. Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary. Rooney campaigned for Obama on a "Steel Blitz for Barack" bus tour to win over white working-class voters in the heart of Steeler Nation.
The state's blue-collar workers proved elusive to Obama. Two of the area's bellwether counties, Beaver and Westmoreland, voted solidly for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Republican nominee.
Even so, Obama captured the state in the general election.
In a statement, Obama said Rooney was "an unwavering supporter of Irish peace, culture and education, and I have every confidence that he and Secretary [of State] Clinton will ensure America's continued close and unique partnership with Ireland in the years ahead."
During a ceremony where Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen presented the president with a bowl of shamrocks, Obama said Rooney would be "an outstanding representative. And the people of Ireland, I think, will benefit greatly from him representing the United States there."
Rooney became a supporter after watching Obama's speech the night he won the Iowa caucuses. Although Rooney waited until he met Obama at a campaign rally to endorse him, he did so in a public way, publishing an open letter to his "fellow Pennsylvanians."
Rooney took heat from a contingent of vocal Steelers' fans, with some posting comments on local news sites and sending e-mails excoriating him for his stance.
Enshrined in the National Football Hall of Fame in 2000, Rooney helped create the so-called Rooney Rule that required any NFL team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate for the job.
In the 1970s, Rooney co-founded the Ireland Fund to support peace and reconciliation programs in Ireland. In 1987, the fund merged with the American Irish Foundation, originally formed by President Kennedy in 1963.
More than $300 million has been raised for peace programs in Ireland, according to the organization's website.
After his meeting with Cowen, Obama met with Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy Martin McGuinness in a closed-door session in the office of national security advisor James L. Jones Jr.
Obama also spoke at the annual St. Patrick's Day luncheon, hosted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, where he addressed Ireland's 10-year run of relative peace that appeared to be shaken this month when two soldiers and a policeman were slain in brazen attacks in Northern Ireland.
"This peace will prevail because the response of the people of Northern Ireland and their leaders to these cowardly attacks have been nothing short of heroic, true profiles in courage," Obama said
Cowen called the people who killed the men "a tiny and evil and unrepresentative minority" determined to "destroy the peace that we have built painstakingly together."
"They did not succeed in that," he added. "They cannot succeed, and they will not succeed."