“Reagan realised that it was possible, even necessary, to collaborate on a friendly footing with the new Soviet leader who sincerely embraced a policy of openness. Indeed, he went so far as to magnanimously subscribe to the role in which Gorbachev sought to cast him before the Soviet leadership and, perhaps, the entire world: that of the uneducated, superficial demagogue. In other words, Gorbachev shone in the limelight even as his Soviet Union was fatally bursting at the seams with the centrifugal forces unleashed in the process.”

There is no limit to how far a man can go or what
he can achieve if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.”

This quote featured on a plaque placed by Ronald Reagan on his desk on his first day in the Oval Office. It is certainly not a motto the Reagan image in the superficial public eye would lead one to expect coming from this uniquely influential president of the United States. The sentence is remembered fondly by the former presidential speech writer Clark Judge, as published in the January 2020 issue of Hungarian Review.

Judge quickly proceeds to interpret the quote while recalling an insider episode. Before doing that, however, he provides a shorthand rundown of the stages of Ronald Reagan’s nine-year journey that culminated in accomplishing his two strategic goals of lifting the United States out of crisis and eliminating the single most important division within Europe. Judge notes the incomprehension and resistance that Reagan met with in the course of this journey, particularly in its early phase, on the part of journalists, foreign affairs staff and the CIA. In 1988, toward the end of his second term, Reagan invited Gorbachev to Washington to sign the historic treaty ending the Cold War, and prompted an enthusiastic public celebration for the Soviet president as the initiator of glasnost, the policy of openness. The event marked the pinnacle of the road that had begun in 1985, when Reagan turned his back on the Star Wars (SDI) campaign – far from an empty strategic threat – and decided to steer the relations between the two superpowers on the path of historic disarmament.

On one occasion during Gorbachev’s visit, Reagan shared a dinner with some of his core conservative supporters and journalists, who censured him forcefully for his leniency in public appearances. As Judge wrote:

They were really banging on him very hard. And then one of them, a man named Ben Wattenberg, who was an important figure at that time, and a great figure, had a flash of insight. He said, “Mr President, are you telling us, that what’s going on here … are you saying without saying it … are you telling us that the West has won the Cold War?” Reagan was silent. Wattenberg repeated: “Mr President, have we won the Cold War?” Reagan was silent. Wattenberg pressed again: “Mr President, give us an answer!” The President spoke one word: “Yes”.

Judge refrains from mentioning what happened next, but one can infer. Delicate situations like this must have been no easy task to manoeuvre for a man worth his salt – the double game Reagan had to play out to the end, given the ruthlessly straightforward, outspoken habit of the American press. Reagan had a window of opportunity to change his approach and tone in Soviet relations precisely because of the reformist Gorbachev’s emergence on the political scene in 1985, and he was determined, from the start, to stick to the golden rule of not acting like the victor. His strategy was to keep fuelling the bursting energies of freedom of thought and economic superiority over the Soviet Union while bolstering the position of Gorbachev against the hardliner opposition within his own Party. In short, Reagan realised that it was possible, even necessary, to collaborate on a friendly footing with the new Soviet leader who sincerely embraced a policy of openness. Indeed, he went so far as to magnanimously subscribe to the role in which Gorbachev sought to cast him before the Soviet leadership and, perhaps, the entire world: that of the uneducated, superficial demagogue. In other words, Gorbachev shone in the limelight even as his Soviet Union was fatally bursting at the seams with the centrifugal forces unleashed in the process.

“There is such a thing as glasnost, but there is no perestroika, and there never will be. The Soviet system cannot be rebuilt”, as József Antall, the freshly elected democratic Prime Minister of Hungary was wont to repeat two years later to Western leaders who solicited his opinion.

Most people, including many of those working in the White House, commit the mistake of thinking they are smarter than Reagan, his Chief of Staff Don Regan once remarked. Reagan was thus far from the simple soul he was often presented as, but rather a born political genius, able to reconcile the certainty of triumph with humility; always ready to allow his bearing to be commanded by the situation at hand.

As an example, I recall October 1990, when József Antall and his delegation went on a state visit (the highest order of intergovernmental exchange in US protocol) to the US on the invitation of President George W. Bush. As part of the tour, we were flown in a presidential jet to California, where our busy programme included a meeting, at Antall’s behest, with the now retired Ronald Reagan in his Presidential Library – an archive-cum-office – to which he was entitled in the capacity of former President. Antall wished to pay his respects to the President to express the heartfelt gratitude of Hungary and all of Central Europe for bringing Communism to heel.

The Prime Minister and the President. 18 October 1990, Los Angeles. In the background, Marc L. Holtzman (right) and the chief security officer of Antall’s bodyguards. © MTI. Photo by Attila Kovács

The Presidential Library was furnished then, as its first site, in an eight to ten-story building in Hollywood, with the office, reception and conference rooms occupying the top floor. On our right as we were seated in the conference room, the famous “HOLLYWOOD” sign was visible through the window; the other side provided access, by a broad doorway, to the offices in the back. Reagan sat at one side of the long table in the company of two aides, facing Antall and his delegation of high-ranking officials composed expressly for this special occasion: Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Géza Jeszenszky, the new Ambassador to Washington Péter Zwack, Chief of Staff István Forrai, personal adviser Pál Tar, and myself as foreign policy adviser. Reagan had no sooner greeted us with a restrained smile of anticipation than he transferred the floor to Antall. At this point, Peter Zwack dashed in.

“Mr President, how come you are such a dove now, when you used to be such a hawk?” he asked brusquely. Blood froze in us for a moment. Antall and I were taken aback by this offensively confidential intrusion which seemed to hark back to the worst clichés of the journalistic profession. True enough, we had had certain reservations about Zwack – an appointee whom neither Antall nor I had happened to personally pick for office – but this incident managed to surpass even our deepest worries.

On the left, the President and his aides with the American translator sitting at the opposite end. On the right, the Hungarian translator, the Prime Minister, Péter Zwack and Gyula Kodolányi. 18 October 1990, Los Angeles. © MTI. Photo by Attila Kovács

Imperceptibly, the President cast a quick but hardly reproachful glance at Antall, as if to ask: “Where did this weird character come from?” Antall returned an equally prompt and poignant glance to reassure the President, who then simply answered Zwack in his slowly articulated, soft but deeply sonorous voice: “Well, yes, indeed…” No more perfect reply could have been given to what the question meant or was supposed to mean or imply.

Antall then took over and proceeded, as planned, to commend the President for his historic role in initiating the democratic turn – a veritable reshuffling of the reigning world order – by bringing about the fall of Communism. We presented him with an exquisitely framed and decked piece of the barbed wire chopped out from the Iron Curtain, along with other mementos of the peaceful Hungarian revolution of 1989–1990. The President, evidently moved by these gifts, simply replied that he felt gratified by being preserved in the memory of our nations in this manner. Following a photo opportunity and entries in the guest book album, we took our farewell and, taking the elevator, were escorted by staff and bodyguards to our limos waiting for us in front of the building.

Getting into the flagship vehicle in the company of Zwack (as dictated by diplomatic protocol), on the way back Antall explained to him,  with  the tactful but lucid emphasis of the seasoned and courteous professor that he was outside his tough core, some of the chapters Zwack seemed to have missed in his crash course in diplomatic education. First and foremost was the rule that, on occasions like this, only the head of the delegation was allowed to speak; all others in his entourage had to remain silent unless called upon by the leader to make an utterance. Incidentally, this particular performance by Zwack was not the last episode of his diplomatic journey that culminated in the two governments’ mutual decision to recall him from his post as ambassador. Such a story was part and parcel of the democratic revolution, which not infrequently allowed unlikely political hopefuls to emerge. Like the member of the famous liquor manufacturing dynasty Péter Zwack, who had recently repatriated from the West, they did not always succeed in tuning in to the political and human tone of the events, and some of them proved unable or unwilling to obey the specific rules of bearing public office.

As for mavericks of sorts, I, for my part, was not inclined to wear a tie except for occasions of high protocol. On most occasions I wore silk scarves of varying patterns, to which Antall, well versed in French style, consented as a favour. It was part of our special deal with the Prime Minister, who wanted to keep me, a writer, as his official advisor at such little costs.

On the way from the presidential office to the limos, Antall found the time to remark to us, in his distinctively wry manner, that he thought the President might no longer have comprehended the meaning of our visit in its entire magnitude. This time, I begged to differ. I saw Antall’s sarcasm as a foil for his disenchantment. He had hoped for more from this meeting which meant so much to him, personally as well as in terms of his high calling, and had set great store by it. To me, it was obvious that our homage meant much to Reagan – except that he was a serene, prudent man just as averse to excessive praise as Antall himself. And that unpleasant incident at the beginning of our meeting certainly upset the unfolding of the subtle mood of confidence in which the two statesmen could have felt more relaxed, and entered a more substantial exchange of views.

Antall was a winsome conversationalist but also a famously restrained man, who never took well to panegyrics lauding his person. On his sixtieth birthday, in early April 1992, the parliamentary faction of the MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) held a private celebration in his honour. His closest confidantes had to take pains to persuade Antall to attend, and they did not succeed until it was almost too late. But when they finally did, he used the occasion of enumerating political milestones to deliver one of the most amazing speeches of his career – freely, without notes – marked by peerless wit, personal insight and a sweeping perspective.

As for the extent of the jealousy with which he guarded his own privacy, I remember an episode that even I found unsettling. On a Friday afternoon in July 1992 I ran into him at the entrance of Kútvölgyi Hospital. I had been walking down the broad main stairs, my travel bag in hand, to get into my car after being released by my cardiologists who had held me for three days of testing. (My heart rate had skyrocketed from days of nonstop speechwriting on a tight deadline, to the point that one night the paramedics were called in to take me to hospital from the Prime Minister’s office.) As for Antall, he had been trudging his daily calvary, the treatment with a tumour in his armpit diagnosed in the autumn of 1990, and was just getting out of his car. Meeting halfway on the stairs, we stopped to shake hands. “How are you doing?” he asked politely, but it was clear he did not wish to be asked in return. It took all of one minute, both of us feeling embarrassed. He knew I had overworked myself, and also knew that I knew he had come because of his far more serious illness, but neither of us made it a point in any way. A week later, he and I again spent more than an hour on our habitual Friday afternoon wrap up, chatting in private in his Prime Minister’s reception room, half-darkened due to his constant headaches, without even alluding to that awkward episode. We talked about many things as usual, freely but with purpose, from recent remarkable events to the tasks ahead of us, family histories, the course of life, human strengths and follies, and things like the sad, thoroughly unjust fact of women reaching a stage beyond full bloom.

For me, that visit in Los Angeles perfectly fit in with the image I had formed of Reagan over the years from his televised speeches, from political commentaries in the press, and from what my university colleagues in Santa Barbara had told me about seeing him donning a wide-rimmed hat as he strolled down the main street of tiny Santa Ynez beyond the saddle of mountains along the coast. He had always struck me as a stylishly nonchalant yet energetic public figure who feels at home in his skin but never says anything or more than is strictly relevant to a public moment and knows his ways around formalities. Even his famous improvisations seemed to me well considered, stemming from the logic of an inner map informing his governance. This perception of the President was confirmed to me the other day by Clark Judge himself, who hastened to add that, in 1990, Reagan had still been in full possession of his mental capacities. In fact, Jeszenszky tells me that he had a very meaningful conversation with him as late as in the summer of 1991.

These impressions of mine were corroborated and enriched by various individuals working for Reagan whom I got to know while I held government office starting in 1990, including officials, advisers and analysts. They all admired the man for his upright bearing, his no-frills decent manners, quickness of wit, and fine visceral sense of humour in describing people and situations. And they were all equally ready to accept his volcanic wrath when it seethed, because that, too, was an honest part of his nature.

Reagan’s media guru, and a family friend, Michael Deaver once related to me over coffee in Washington how the White House troika would elaborate plans over lunch on Fridays for Reagan’s public appearances scheduled for the following week. Chief of Staff James Baker, White House Counsel Edwin Meese and himself as Communications Director, took an overview of current political themes, messages and venues. Once the plan has been approved by the President, Deaver engaged the speechwriters and came up with a design for the selected venues with ordinary people as protagonists and audience attending, always already with the television screen in mind. Reagan then mulled over the script and followed it to a tee, like a great actor following the instructions of a capable director. Ultimately, however, the mastermind behind it all was Reagan himself. “You invented Reagan”, someone once told Deaver. “No, I didn’t”, Deaver replied. “Reagan invented me!”

Gábor Czakó and myself, as the two advisors to the Prime Minister in media affairs, wanted to introduce a model similar to Deaver’s to orchestrate Antall’s public appearances, but our persevering attempts were rejected by adverse pockets of power. As Viktor Orbán was to state judiciously in 1995, József Antall, in his famous 1990 May compromise with the parliamentary opposition had gained for his majority the guarantees for energetic legislative work, but he conceded in the bargain what he had not owned, the media. The staunch and immensely talented Premier who steered Hungary into institutional democracy, did not meet a worthy partner in the media for a long time. The Communist-turned-liberal press pundits took the opposition side. Specifically, the state-run Hungarian Television and Hungarian Radio did not concede Antall’s perception that the Government, elected by an overwhelming parliamentary majority and credited with overhauling the country’s entire legal order, ought to be given a regular slot for disseminating information as a matter of national interest. We all knew about Churchill’s regular broadcasts during the tough times of the War, about special broadcast time given to new democratic leaders conducting transitions in Latin America. Closer at hand, Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus had his weekly broadcasts on the difficulties and goals of a society and its government in transit, as I learned it from the Premier himself. Although President Havel disagreed with him on many points, he did not thwart Klaus in this respect. But these examples did not affect the reasoning of the opponents of Antall.

The damage inflicted by the Hungarian state media’s resistance to the centre-right Prime Minister weighed heavy not just on the Cabinet led by a brilliant man who overachieved his duties despite struggling with illness. By denying a regular information segment to the government, the two public media effectively barred a wide range of the electorate from the experience of keeping track of the process of building a democracy and of claiming that process as their own. It was an egregious crime against the nation, and one of historic proportions.

In closing, let me recall two more stories related to Reagan. Hungarian economist and politician János Horváth, who passed away recently, was the youngest member of Parliament in 1945, then on behalf of the Smallholders’ Party, and its eldest in 2015, in the colours of Fidesz. In between, starting in 1956, he lived in the United States for nearly forty years, and in 1980 shared the campaign trail with Reagan across Indiana. Reagan of course was the Republican candidate for president, while Horváth ran for Congress representing Indiana. When a rally was over, they would board the campaign bus or campaign train together, to continue their friendly discussion. On more than one occasion, Reagan would turn to Horváth seated across from him. “János, do tell me more about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution”, he requested.

This way of shoring up political motivation was characteristic of the President whom his opponents did their best to paint as a sort of Hollywood-grown fake cowboy – while they could, in spite of manifest facts. This was a man who in 1980 made his pilgrimage to the Berlin Wall and, after a minute or two of furious silence at the sight, as Clark Judge tells us, exclaimed to his companion Richard Allen in these words: “This is a wrong, a moral wrong, a human wrong. It must not stand.” The great Swiss psychologist and thinker Carl Gustav Jung called the Wall “the fracture in the heart of Europe”. Yet for twenty years no political leader in the West was as moved by it as Reagan was, let alone acting on that impulse in his politics as consistently as he did.

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel and Gyula Kodolányi

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