Arpad Goncz: Steel worker, lawyer, playwright, translator, president of Hungary


Why so many writers and intellectuals at the head of the past year's revolutions in Eastern Europe? Vaclav Havel, a playwright, is the president of Czechoslovakia. Writers and professors play key roles in the transformation of Poland and East Germany. Meanwhile, in the West we have Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, George Bush. Even their admirers don't call them intellectuals.

Arpad Goncz twinkles. Compact, neat, florid, balding, 68 years old with a precise white mustache. He is the president of Hungary, formerly a steel worker, welder, pipefitter, agricultural engineer, lawyer, playwright, translator and political prisoner.

He is, in fact, the translator of George Bush, of his book "Looking Forward," or as it is in Hungarian, "Elore tekintvel." Still, Mr. Bush is not what we usually think of as a writer.

"It is easy to explain," Mr. Goncz says. Indeed, the prominent role of intellectuals is natural and expected, he says, and can be seen in Latin America as well as Eastern Europe.

"Under dictatorship, it is only the writer and the artist who preserve understanding of the human dimension. Those who are making politics are not really experts or engineers of human problems, but only what you might call skilled laborers."

When creative politics is again possible, the creative people -- those with some knowledge of history, economics, psychology, sociology -- are the only ones able to respond. "It is amateurs like us who must take the responsibility -- "

At this point a curious thing happens. President Goncz enters into negotiations with his interpreter. Though a translator of (among others) Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, E. L. Doctorow, William Styron, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Alice Walker, John Updike and . . . uh, George Bush . . . Mr. Goncz prefers to speak Hungarian and be interviewed through an interpreter. For one thing, it is near the end of a long, overscheduled day, and he is tired. For another, he can edit himself as he listens to his words come out of the interpreter's mouth.

"Not 'amateurs.' " He explains his meaning to the interpreter.

"Yes, 'amateurs,' " says the interpreter.

"No, 'dilettantes,' " insists the president of Hungary.

"It is dilettantes like us who must take the responsibility," the cowed interpreter supplies.

The word, as it turns out, is crucial to a little game Mr. Goncz has been building up to. He has been asked the question about intellectuals in politics many more times than this particular interpreter has answered it for him.

"It is a strange process in Hungary," Mr. Goncz says (through the interpreter). "In the last two or three years, dilettantes started a reform movement. From among them, gifted amateurs [yes, now 'amateurs' is exact] arise to push the work forward. Probably by the end of the current parliament [in four years] our first few fully professional politicians will be in place."

Until that happens, he says, "we hold a mandate to save the country."

We intellectuals? We dilettantes? The interpreter (or the president) wisely leaves it unclear. It is in any event a claim at once magnificently self-aggrandizing and charmingly self-deprecating.

Similar processes are unfolding in Latin America and in much of the Third World, Mr. Goncz concludes. "Please do not see this as a miracle, but as a phenomenon."

And the dead-serious corollary completes the answer to the original question of why in the East but not in the West intellectuals dominate politics. (No 15-second sound bites from Mr. Goncz.)

In the United States and Western Europe, where "fully professional politicians" who "understand the human dimension" are in control, intellectuals are not required to save the country, .. but merely to criticize, to remind the politicians of their better angels. One wonders how many of the U.S. writers Mr. Goncz translates would agree.

The president represents the Alliance of Free Democrats, a political party that has been described as consisting of "liberal conservatives." It is decidedly not the largest of the six parties represented in Hungary's first post-Communist parliament, but Mr. Goncz nevertheless was the parliament's overwhelming choice for president.

One man's life: sentenced to life imprisonment in 1957 for political activities, amnestied in 1963, elected president in 1990. Czechoslovakia's President Vaclav Havel has a similar biography.

"When thinking of my own life, I almost don't recognize it as being my life," Mr. Goncz remarked to an interviewer from Interview magazine.

"It's a bit surrealistic, a bit grotesque," he told another interviewer, from USA Today. "Thank God I haven't forgotten to laugh at myself."

But serious business, as well, brought him to the United States last week. Technically, it was a private visit, at the invitation of the Center for Democracy, a Washington think tank, and the Virginia Bicentennial Commission. His ostensible purpose was to reflect, as a literary man and dilettante president, on the influence of the American Bill of Rights on the turbulent events in Eastern Europe.

First, though, there was work to do. Mr. Goncz huddled with business leaders in New York and Hartford, Conn., with congressmen in Washington, with prominent Hungarian-Americans, with professors, with C-SPAN and Voice of America and packs of scribbling reporters.

His message was that "it is profitable and secure to invest in Hungary." His country needs American know-how, investment, enthusiasm, investment, optimism and investment. U.S. Peace Corps volunteers are streaming into Hungary, mostly to teach English as a way of helping Hungary plug into the world capitalist system.

Mr. Goncz's flattery of America reflects sincere admiration. At the Bill of Rights celebration Monday in Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia, President Goncz again deftly combined the aggrandizing with the ironic, suggesting that in rather unimportant corners of the world -- Hungary in 1990 and the 13 United States in 1790 -- "work of global importance" may unfold.

He paid tribute to the founding documents of the United States -- Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and James Madison's Constitution with its Bill of Rights -- for providing a "calm, self-assured" response to the spirit of liberty that was abroad 200 years ago.

In contrast, the Hapsburg monarchy that ruled Hungary at the time reacted in panic, revoking such reforms as it had begun and restoring feudalism under festoonments of Enlightenment rhetoric. Thus new measures securing the right to own land and granting exemption from taxation were called "freedoms" -- but applied only to the 5 percent of Hungarians who constituted the nobility.

Two hundred years later, of course, life is not so simple as Enlightenment theories and ceremonies in Charlottesville. In Budapest, as in Washington, presidents face real-world problems; at the interviews and press conferences the nagging journalists -- to the consternation of Mr. Goncz's handlers -- insisted on ignoring the political theory and asking him about Iraq, about the pace of economic reform, about relations with Germany. The handlers tried to explain that President Goncz isn't supposed to be a policy expert; he is a symbol of the newly emerging Hungarian state.

So the symbol got practical. Respecting the embargo on Iraq will cost Hungary about half a billion dollars this year, Mr. Goncz said, and gave a breakdown. "But we of course join the sanctions."

As to the pace of reform, it is true, the president said, that Poland is moving faster than Hungary. That's a measure of the desperation of the Polish situation, he said: "The Poles are starting from scratch; we still have something to lose."

The knottiest problem is sorting out private property claims. "Almost everybody had something expropriated" by the Communists, but if the new government starts trying to make restitution, "the next day there will be 50 million lawsuits, not to mention that the total compensation would amount to four times the national wealth."

Yet the government is hesitant to simply declare all claims void and put everything up for bids. Already there is grumbling about sweetheart deals to foreigners, engineered by bureaucrats.

There is grumbling, too, that the Germans are gaining too much influence, that West German politicians financed the campaigns of several Hungarian political parties. And there is grumbling that the collapse of communism, which at least paid lip service to an internationalist ethic, has reawakened ghosts of Hungarian nationalism and anti-Semitism.

In his Charlottesville address, the prisoner-playwright-president had no desire to remain above the battle.

"Anybody who has heard, or fought in, a parliamentary battle as important as that of the wording and passing of the Bill of Rights," he said, "knows well that countless views, interests, unspoken assumptions, personal dislikes and sympathies manifest themselves in the pros and cons of debate. And it is a miracle of God if a sound text is produced in the end."

If the American institutions have served well, it is not because they were produced by theorists and intellectuals, Mr. Goncz suggested. "To achieve that perfection, the man who gives the debate direction has to be such a battle-hardened old hand at jTC parliamentary work, such a convincing and authentic personality, such an exceptional debater, a man so outstanding bright and always ready for compromise as James Madison was."

Arpad Goncz: prisoner, playwright, president, dilettante, and Hungary's Madison.

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