A personal tribute to Ferenc Mádl, on his 80th birthday

In one of the rare moments when Ferenc Mádl spoke of the important influences in his life – perhaps in the biographical film made in the summer of 2000 – he mentioned that in his childhood he could see on the beam in his parents’ house a row of books his family considered important. Among those few volumes – for buying books at the time was by no means an everyday affair – alongside the Bible and the classics of Hungarian literature there was a volume of the poetry of Walt Whitman in English. But how did an American edition of poetry by Walt Whitman find its way in the 1930s to a peasant house in Bánd or Szentkirályszabadja?

An unusual family collection of books always has a history, and can shape a destiny. I gradually came to know the history of this book on the basis of fragments, bits and pieces of knowledge gleaned from the biographical film and other sources. In his youth Mádl’s father, a peasant from Bánd, sought his fortunes in the New World. He worked in the United States for a few years and then returned to Hungary, where he bought a plot of land and started a family. He had “staggered off to America,” as Attila József put it in one of his famous poems, with a specific goal in mind: to see the world and to seek work. And to return, wealthier in all respects. Like the great Székely novelist Áron Tamási, Mádl’s father came back from America to Hungary as a free, independent man, knowing something of the world. Not a single one of his many children failed to complete grammar school, and some went on to become members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

The famous line by Attila József and the cries for help of so many Hungarian intellectuals in the early twentieth century still ring in our ears, and indeed the new wave of people streaming out of the country today makes these cries sound even shriller.

There were, however, exceptions: young peasants and workers who after years of wandering returned from the United States, France, and other countries, strengthened by the tests and trials of another culture and wealthier in the knowledge of their trades. In Hungary they became purposeful, determined cultivators of the soil and the finest among skilled workers and small entrepreneurs. Their ambition, skill, and approach became an important part of the quiet force that helped to further the gradual revolution that took place in the lower classes in the interwar period, while on the surface the social structures underwent apparently little change. It would be a useful exercise, to research a dozen or so of these stories of homecoming, to enrich our self-knowledge as a nation. The stories might also mention that in the time of the alleged apotheosis of the working classes in the Communist 1950s, it was not advisable to speak of these family histories. True heroes of the era found themselves not at the forefront of the new world, but rather in internment camps or prisons. Perhaps this is why we know so little about those who returned from the West. The regime thought it important to ensure their stories would be forgotten.

Ferenc Mádl grew up reading, and the image of him which comes most often to my mind is of some cosy corner where I find him ensconced with a book. Not in an office with an imposing desk, but in a comfortable armchair, complete with reading lamp, deep in reflection, and contemplation – footholds in the life of the bibliophile, of the meditative reader. Footholds, moreover, that can easily be refashioned in moments of transition as well, for instance in the summer, in the hotel rooms of the Biological Institute in Tihany.

There is always a table near the armchair, neither large nor small, and not intrusive, at arm’s length. A space on which to place the readings of the moment and perhaps a scrap of paper on which to note a passing thought. The scene is often bathed in natural light, and in the early morning or at dusk, the lamp casts a warm glow on the chair and its occupant.

Mádl has always read a great deal – a rarity in my experience, among politicians today. What has become of the time when, in the 1850s, the audiences in England which greeted the speeches of Lajos Kossuth with fervour and zeal, bestowed on the exiled statesman a complete edition of the works of Shakespeare? This gift, once kept in Kossuth’s study in Turin, is now exhibited on the top floor of the National Széchényi Library in the original wood cabinet, in a maquette of Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. It is difficult to imagine the admirers of a British, American or Australian statesman offering such a token of their support today. Even in the case of politicians who belong to the intelligentsia, our age does not encourage them to indulge a passion for reading, and it is no longer fashionable to flaunt one’s reading habits. If we ask politicians about culture, they will praise Elton John or perhaps the Spice Girls.

It was common knowledge, however, that Mádl, as President of the Republic, was a great reader of books, a selective, attentive bibliophile. In the early days of our acquaintance I was often surprised when he would call quite unexpectedly, usually on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, to share with me his thoughts on one of my recent writings, which he had often been the first to read.

Anyone who writes opens up to the outside, and when you seek to pass something on to others you can become vulnerable. But such attentiveness, restores our balance. It is a gesture which Ferenc Mádl has mastered – far rarer today, among readers and writers in general, than it once was. We chatter and prattle and concern ourselves too much with the veneer of appearance and in the meantime grow dull, hardened, and insensitive to one another.

A simple phone call goes beyond the book itself, and extends to the writer. It is evidence of unusual immersion, absorption, the continuous contemplation of things and their transformation into acts.

Ferenc Mádl has often spoken to me of the books of other writers, of the experiences and insights he has gleaned from them, which are too important in his mind for him not to share them with others.

Petőfi, Whitman and the Bible

So Ferenc Mádl’s father, the head of a peasant family, reaches up for one of the books on the beam on a long winter evening. In this family ethos, the classics of Hungarian literature, both poetry and prose, strengthened sentimental bonds to the Hungarian language and nation.

The Bible and Whitman’s poetry echo each other, in a peculiarly modern and perennial kind of religiosity, that strengthens the motifs of mystical love and joy, the characteristic strain of Jesus. The love and embrace of life, men and nature, and the democratic feelings that are produced by this attitude. An optimistic Christianity that bears sufferings with dignity, when they befall us, but does not seek them out. According to this faith the world is a place where light and joy have the upper hand over the forces of evil, and the spread of evil must be stemmed in our circle, its effects must be alleviated, whether they are disease or other ills.

It would be unnecessary to expound on the ways in which Mádl has continued to nurture the mentality in which he was raised. This can be seen in his everyday gestures, which are never theatrical and never flaunt his position or importance, but are rather part of a deeply ingrained congenial habit.

I have often witnessed these gestures in all their spontaneity in the everyday moments of life, in situations that were never planned by Mádl or any of his family, but which rather sprang from the very essence of their characters.

One lovely day last summer, my wife and I drove together in our old car from Tihany to the city of Veszprém. As we strode among the buildings of the castle quarter, Ferenc Mádl vividly recounted memories from his student years. We gazed down from one of the bastions at the narrow ridge at the foot of the wall, along which he hurried in the mornings from the student boarding house to school, a short cut above the winding streets of the town. When he stopped for a moment to rest he would have been able to see the wooded hills above Bánd, the village of his birth, in the west, and perhaps he thought of his parents before continuing on to the school, where the Catholic teachers strengthened him in his knowledge and the mentality he had brought from home.

The walk in Veszprém and the recollections to which it gave rise were continuously interrupted. Tourists, strangers to us, approached to shake hands and chat with the former president, who had left office some four years earlier. Clearly they approached him not because of his influence or fame, but rather merely to offer their greetings and say a few words. They thanked him for some decision he had made as president, or they chatted about themselves while he listened attentively.

People respect Mádl, and they find him neither intimidating nor threatening. They do not worry that they are pestering or importuning him, because they feel that he is essentially like them.

Mádl is a man of cultivation and simplicity. He can read and converse in three languages. He is known worldwide as a scholar and teacher of law. But he is much more than that. On his long road to erudition he came to a point where he realized that simplicity is the superior form of knowledge. And the provisions he brought with him from home, family cheer, restraint and modesty, helped him arrive at this realization, slicing with a single stroke through the layers of spectacle and pomp that accumulate in public life.

That evening, my wife and I pondered how this man of modest elegance won such respect during his time as president. We recalled sentences scattered over the years when Mádl spoke of the times he worked in the fields as a child, of how sometimes the whole family worked the land, parents and children together. And how he returned home to help, even as a university student, sharing in the fate of the fieldworker, barely a few years before receiving a scholarship to Strasbourg that was, quite unexpectedly, to determine his career.

This manual labour and the memories of work stored in his hands, his shoulders, his body bestowed on him the blessings of practical intelligence, temperateness, and an understanding of the real forces of the world. He gained a sense of moderation and humility without humiliation. For this was all part of a way of life in his family, a family that never considered itself ill-fated or unlucky.

Thus Ferenc Mádl became genuinely popular as the President of the Republic.

A man of calm in a passionately divided country, a man of restraint in an era of ostentation and media glamour. A man who chose his words carefully and was always brief while others babbled all around him. A man of elegance in a country of crowds which cultivate sloppiness. A man of compassion in a time of hardened indifference. Or perhaps, just perhaps, a genuine role model.

Called upon

Ferenc Mádl became part of public life in Hungary and President of the Republic without ever aspiring to that role. He never wanted to be a minister, and he certainly never wanted to be president.

He barely knew József Antall when the recently elected Prime Minister called him in May 1990. In the course of their conversation, which lasted a good thirty minutes, Antall tried to convince Mádl to accept a position as a minister in the new government responsible for privatization and Hungary’s integration into the European Union. As a jurist Mádl perhaps knew more about the architecture and functioning of the European Community than anyone else in Hungary. It was one of his fields of specialization. The other was international civil law. It was as if he had been preparing throughout his career for precisely this position. But he knew quite clearly that the role of minister in the first democratically elected government in Hungary would be something entirely different. It would demand answers to fateful questions and intricately complex situations for which one cannot prepare. In the end he accepted the position, for he felt the importance of the moment, and he had faith in Antall’s dedication and clarity of vision.

His rise to the position as President of the Republic, at the conclusion of a respectable career in public life, was every bit as logical. In the era of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, which was rent by internal rivalries, Mádl, who was never a member of the party, stood out ever more clearly among the members of the first democratically elected government as a man of unusual intellectual ability and moral character. He became the pillar of centre-right national thinking, a personality who united others, and this was recognized quite clearly by Viktor Orbán, who had known Mádl as his professor during his university years and had always held him in high esteem. Mádl became a quiet force for change. His nomination for the presidency seemed a logical conclusion. Yet when I went to see his family to share the news with them, his wife Dalma – he was out of the country at the time – asked me, almost with alarm, “Tell me, Gyula, why do they want him? Do you understand why?” We understood.

Ferenc Mádl accepted these positions as unavoidable obligations at a time when, as far as he could tell, there was no one else for the job. And he did his job, an excellent job, in his own personal style, with a tremendous sense of responsibility. Reflecting on his career, I recall a phrase coined by József Antall in 1990: “Those who want to are not capable, those who are capable don’t want to.” Mádl didn’t want to, but he was capable.

He looks back soberly on the past twenty years. He finds joy in the successes and is troubled by the mistakes and failures. During the time of the first democratically elected government he suffered serious disappointments on occasion and was faced with grave crises. The first was when, as a consequence of the decision of the Constitutional Court, no restitutions of arable lands were made to the one-time peasant proprietors. Instead they had to place bids, and any citizen could place bids. In the view of the Constitutional Court, had the one-time owners enjoyed any advantages in the processes of reprivatisation this would have compromised the principle of equal opportunity. Legally this is a clear decision, but its substance is absurd, unhistorical, and fails utterly to take into consideration the real conditions of those it affects. In Mádl’s view, it deprived two million Hungarian peasants, a whole social class, of the last chance to work their own land if they chose to do so. Thus Hungary again became a country of large estates.

The next moment of crisis for him came in 1992 with the transformation of the principles of privatisation. Previously the Government plan had been to establish a large state holding company to strengthen businesses and then sell the viable companies on the Hungarian stock exchange. This would have given each Hungarian citizen a chance to acquire shares in private businesses. In 1992, however, this plan was changed. Instead of revitalizing and modernizing the companies first, they were immediately offered up for cash. In other words, the indiscriminate influx of foreign capital and mass privatisation began. Mádl voted against this change, and when he was voted down on the National Property Board, he submitted his resignation as Minister to József Antall. He then accepted, again at Antall’s request (who in the course of the two years during which they served together had become a close friend), the portfolio of Minister of Culture. A modern educational law was passed, one of the many achievements during his tenure.

Perhaps the most difficult trial of his Presidency and indeed his career was the change of Prime Minister from Péter Medgyessy to Ferenc Gyurcsány within the Socialist government in 2005. Based on his knowledge of the law and its ethics, Mádl, and his staff had to consider whether he had the constitutional right to reject the nomination made by the majority party, which potentially threatened to add to the risks the country faced. It became apparent that the veto process would be long and complex, while the political pressure from the Socialists to reach a quick decision was tremendous. And Mádl had little political support for a veto, however well it might have served the interests of the nation. There was no other political force at that moment prepared to assume the tasks of governance.

Naturally Mádl suffered a deep crisis of conscience in the weeks following his unavoidable decision to accept the nomination. To this day he is preoccupied by thoughts of the consequences, which have suggested to him, much as they have to those drafting Hungary’s new Constitution, the need to rethink the prerogatives of the President.

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