On October 23 about 300 of us were eagerly waiting for Willie Brown at the Green Room of the San Francisco War Memorial Center. The elegant hall has a gorgeous wraparound balcony with a magnificent view of San Francisco City Hall.
The bar was packed with California wines, tasty hors d’oeuvres and we were all dressed up to hear Willie, the former Speaker of the California State Assembly and the 41st mayor of San Francisco. I have heard him before many times, and the 82-year-old Afro-American liberal Democrat never disappoints. He is a funny, a very dynamic speaker and overall fantastic guy. (More about Willie here.)
The boy choir sung. Blessings were given by Father Maurus Németh, Gábor Magyari-Köpe from the local Hungarian Reformed Church, a Rabbi and a Unitarian Minister. The good humored Rabbi even got an applause. Eva Voisin the local Honorary Consul gave a speech and we were ready for Willie Brown. The crowd was warmed up.
Willie did not show. There was no explanation. Was he sick, or had other business? Willie Brown, the main attraction, the star speaker of the San Francisco 56 event simply skipped the occasion.
This year the Hungarian Embassy’s flagship event in Washington DC was the 1956 Anniversary Gala on Sunday, October 16. The black-tie dinner was held at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. Hungarian politicians flew in and Csilla Szentpéteri with her band performed a special program entitled “The Tempest of October 1956.” Money was not spared and even a lobbyist emcee, Ari Fleischer was hired.
The Gala was sponsored by the Government of Hungary as well as the “Hungarian American Community.” The organizing committee had 140 “distinguished” members; no names mentioned. Who are these people? And why did the Hungarian Government organize the 56 commemoration?
A week before the Gala a twitter was distributed that Victoria Nuland, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs would not attend. Thomas Melia, ex-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State would not be there either. Whoa. Is the State Department boycotting the event? Apparently they were concerned that the Orbán government would tout their attendance as a support for its policies.
Ambassador Colleen Bell was there, and Jeh Johnson Secretary of Homeland Security also gave a brief speech. No Hungarian paper quoted it since it was a polite critique of Hungary’s migrant policies. Mr. Orbán’s media doesn’t report on US criticism anymore. Mostly unknowns were herded together at the Gala: Adrienne Vittadini, a fashion designer, Charles and Peter Gogolak of the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants; philanthropists Calvin Cafritz and Mary V. Mochary, and Aniko Gaal Schott an interior designer. Are they really the most prominent Hungarian-Americans? – I wonder
Florida Republican Congressman Dennis Ross was there; he posed for a photo with ex-Congressman Connie Mack, also from Florida. Mack is Hungary’s current top (and very high paid) lobbyist in the US. Ross is co-chair of the Hungarian American Congressional Caucus, his Democratic co-chair, Rep. Marcy Kaptur was missing. Loyal Republican ex-Governor of New York George Pataki was there, he talked about his 1956 experiences. He attends every Hungarian event in the last 20 years.
As it turned out a parallel 1956 commemoration also took place in DC with influential Hungarian Americans and administration insiders without Hungarian politicians and diplomats. They were not invited. The event was organized by Tom Melia, Charles Gati, Professor at Johns Hopkins University and former Hungarian ambassador to NATO and to the US, András Simonyi. Notable big name Washingtonians attended: Zbigniew Brzezinski, André Goodfriend, Victoria Nuland, her husband, conservative star columnist Bob Kagan, Charlie Kupchan, Rob Berschinksi, Carl Gershman, Sushma Palmer (Mark Palmer’s widow), Hoyt Yee, Ira Forman, Jackson Diehl, Damian Murphy and Pál Maléter Jr., son of the Hungarian army commander and martyr of the 1956 Revolution.
The Embassy’s Gala has proved again that Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi and her government have little support in Washington. Szemerkényi has also created deep divisions among Hungarian Americans with her embrace of the Hungarian far-right and her refusal to discuss issues or even respond to questions.
It seems that the Hungarian diplomacy’s main goal is now to promote “Orbanism” to the dwindling faithful and manufacture “feel good,” often misleading, news-stories for the Hungarian media. The Obama administration, the Democrats, most Republicans and the majority of the Hungarian-American community have turned away from Hungary’s Washington diplomats. Many boycotted the official commemorations on the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
This is a low point for Hungarian American relations.