Arpad Goncz made many, many friends from around the world as a Hungarian novelist, playwright and translator. So it was natural that when he came to Washington this week, he'd want to get together with a few friends.
How nice for everyone that Goncz is now president of Hungary, which meant that a stellar group of American writers were among the guests at last night's White House state dinner.
"He's an exceptionally cultivated man," said essayist Susan Sontag, an old friend whose work Goncz translated two decades ago, when he was merely a "noble dissident." "I bet the last thing he thought he was going to become was president of Hungary," she said.
But president he is, which meant a star-studded night in his honor. The guest list was dotted with celebrity names like actor Tony Curtis, domestic goddess Martha Stewart and Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Charles Nagy. But the real luminaries were the writers: Sontag, William Styron, E.L. Doctorow, Kitty Kelley and Elie Wiesel.
Wiesel hailed Goncz as a man of arts and letters, but his attention is on the elusive peace in the Balkans. "I wanted intervention," the Nobel Peace Prize winner said passionately. "Whenever massive violations of human rights occur, we must intervene."
History has once again placed Goncz in the thick of things. He fought in Hungary's 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union, and, after six years in prison, developed a successful writing and translating career before becoming president in 1990.
"He's an extraordinary man," said Richard Holbrooke, the U.N. ambassador-designate who was married in Budapest four years ago, with Goncz as a guest. "He's a humanist of a special generation who believe in universal values. They're not normal political figures."
Goncz's visit to Washington has been dominated by the war in Yugoslavia. Hungary, along with Poland and the Czech Republic, became a NATO member earlier this year, and Goncz agreed yesterday that his country would be part of the peacekeeping effort in Kosovo.
But last night's dinner was not, as some had hoped, a chance to bask in a peace agreement. "It may not be a full celebration," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), "but there's a sense of anticipation. We're on the road to victory here."
In their toasts, both presidents emphasized not quick victories or solutions, but the importance of lasting peace and enduring democracies.
Comparing Goncz with Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth, who also taught himself English while imprisoned, President Clinton said the Hungarian president's translations "offered Hungary a window on the world." Goncz's lifelong vision of freedom "will form the basis for a better future," Clinton said. "It is at the heart of what we're trying to do to reverse the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo."
In his response, Goncz said that although he had spoken with Clinton four or five times, they had never had a chance to "think together about the course of the world. . . . This was the first time I really felt genuinely that the two countries are allies," Goncz said. He also offered aid to Yugoslavia: "We are prepared to extend a helping hand to a democratic Serbian government and Serbian people."
The serious aspects did not entirely overshadow the summer evening. Hillary Rodham Clinton wore a gauzy, beaded slate-gray gown by Pamela Dennis. Martha Stewart opted for pink silk capri pants and a short matching jacket. Summmery, but perhaps not the most appropriate attire for a state dinner.
Kelley was seated with Goncz at Hillary Clinton's table. "I think she's one of the most fascinating women of the 20th century," said the take-no-prisoners biographer of Nancy Reagan, among others. Can another first lady expose be far behind? Or was the seating a preemptive strike? Kelley just smiled.
The color scheme for the East Room was lavender and gold: mauve silk tablecloths, and gold bamboo containers of purple allium gigantum, lavender delilah roses, blue columbine, white peonies and dendrobium orchids. The summer menu featured salmon with portobello mushrooms, roasted onions and sweet peppers, pecan-crusted lamb with sweet potato flan and barbecued peach ragout, and a dessert of bing cherry strudel.
The evening's entertainment mixed strains of traditional Hungarian folk songs with the sweet soprano of Judy Collins.
Twelve-year-old accordion champion Cory Pesaturo was a crowd favorite with his shoulder-length shag hairstyle and his rendition of the "Beer Barrel Polka." Collins sang many of her staples, including "Chelsea Morning," the song the Clintons said they named their daughter after. She sang of war and peace and concluded by leading the audience in an a cappella "Amazing Grace."
President Clinton recalled that he and Mrs. Clinton first met Collins after a concert 10 years ago in New York, the mention of which brought raucous whoops and cheers from the crowd.
Whenever the commander in chief calls, Collins said last night, she's eager to answer. "You can never do too much of these kinds of things."
The guest list for last night's state dinner:
Arpad Goncz, president of Hungary, and Zsuzsanna Goncz
Janos Martonyi, minister of foreign affairs, and Rozalia Rabai
Geza Jeszenszky, Hungarian ambassador to the United States, and Edit Jeszenszky
Attila Chikan, minister of economic affairs
Gyorgy Suranyi, Hungarian National Bank
Istvan Szent-Ivanyi, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of parliament
Karoly Szunyogh, titular state secretary and head of the Office of the President
Ferenc Vegh, commander, Hungarian defense forces, and chief of general staff
Denes Tomaj, deputy state secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Andras Gulyas, senior foreign policy adviser to the president
Andras Farago, president's spokesman
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) and Jack Rosenthal Sr., Rosenthal Institute for Holocaust Study
Charles Babington, The Washington Post, and Norma Babington
Kathy Baczko and Joseph R. Baczko, Frank's Nursery and Crafts
Charlene Barshefsky, U.S. trade representative, and Edward B. Cohen, Department of the Interior
Paul Begala, MSNBC, and Diane Begala
Samuel Berger, assistant to the president for national security affairs, and Susan Berger
Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) and Carolyn Berry
Donald Blinken, former ambassador to Hungary, and Vera Blinken, International Rescue Committee
Tibor S. Borgida, Voice of America, and Ann L. Ostroff
Brooksley Born, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and Alex Bennett
Susan Braden, director of Central and East European affairs, National Security Council, and Larry Zarker
Jay Branegan, Time magazine, and Stefania Pittaluga
Thomas Cholnoky and Elisabeth D. Cholnoky
William S. Cohen, secretary of defense, and Janet Langhart Cohen
Judy Collins, singer-songwriter, and Louis Nelson
Joe Conason, the New York Observer, and Elizabeth Wagley
Tony Curtis, actor, and Jill Curtis
Istvan Deak, Columbia University, and Gloria Deak
Robert Deans, Cox Newspapers, and Karen Deans
Mollie Dickenson, iF Magazine, and James Dickenson
E.L. Doctorow, author, and Helen S. Doctorow
George Dozsa, Hungarian Reformed Federation of America, and Matilda Dozsa
Charles Duncan, special assistant to the president and associate director of presidential personnel, and Barbara Wills-Duncan
Sara Ehrman, Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, and Mark Ginsberg
Charles Fenyvesi, Radio Free Europe, and Lizou Fenyvesi
Carleton S. Finkbeiner, mayor of Toledo, Ohio, and Amy Finkbeiner
Stephen Flanagan, special assistant to the president and senior director for Central and Eastern European affairs, National Security Council, and Lynn Flanagan, Department of Agriculture
Ella Freilich and Ary Freilich
Mary Mel French, chief of protocol, and Molly Raiser
Istvan Gereben and Erzsebet Gereben
Ralph J. Gerson, Guardian International Corp., and Erica Ward Gerson
Francine Goldstein, Aviation Products Management, and Sandra Wagenfeld
Marc Grossman, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, and Margaret Hawthorne, Department of State
Margaret Ham and Tibor Ham
Laszlo Hamos, Hungarian Human Rights Foundation, and Zsuzsa Hamos
Richard Holbrook, Credit Suisse First Boston
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)
Robert R. Ivany, commanding general, U.S. Army Military District of Washington, and Marianne Ivany
William J. Ivey, chairman, National Endowment for the Arts, and Ellen McCulloch-Lovell
David W. Jones, DWJ Strategies and Mary Ann Akers
Philip Kaiser, former ambassador to Hungary and Austria, and Hannah Kaiser
Kitty Kelley, author, and Jonathan Zucker
William Kennard, chairman, Federal Communications Commission, and Deborah Kennedy
Maj. Gen. Donald L. Kerrick, deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs, and Thayne Kerrick
Robert P. Kogod, Charles E. Smith Cos., and Arlene R. Kogod
Frank Koszorus Jr., Hungarian-American Coalition, and Marianne Koszorus
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Yelena Boxer
George Lang, Langastronomia, and Jennifer Lang
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Annette Lantos
Ronald S. Lauder, Estee Lauder & Clinique Laboratories, and Jo Carole Lauder
Edith K. Lauer, Hungarian American Coalition, and John M. Lauer
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Howard Markel
Finlay Lewis, Copley News Service, and Willee Eskew Lewis
Evelyn Lieberman, senior adviser to the secretary of state, and Edward H. Lieberman
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Hadassah Lieberman
Laszlo Lovasz, Microsoft Corp., and Katalin Vesztergombi
Peter Lowy, Westfield Corp., and Janine Lowy
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Charlene Lugar
Zoltan Merszei, Dow Chemical, and Aimee Merszei
Stephen Mustos, U.S. delegate for the Hungarian Roman Catholic bishop
Charles Nagy, Cleveland Indians, and Jacquelyn Nagy
William Nichols, USA Today, and Su-Lin Nichols
Laszlo Papp, World Federation of Hungarians, and Julianna Bika
Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr. (R-Miss.) and Leisha Pickering
John D. Podesta, chief of staff to the president, and Mary Podesta
Janos Radvanyi, Mississippi State University, and Christina Mary Radvanyi
Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, vice chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Dede Ralston
Bruce Reed, assistant to the president for domestic policy, and Bonnie Lepard
Dan K. Rosenthal, assistant to the president and director of advance, and Aviva Steinberg
Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) and Jane R. Roth, U.S. circuit judge
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)
Charles Simonyi, Microsoft Corp., and Martha Stewart
Maj. Gen. John Smith, Ohio National Guard, and Anita Smith
Deborah Smulyan, Emmis International, and Randall Bongarten
Susan Sontag, writer, and David Rieff
David Steiner, Steiner Equities Group, and Sylvia Steiner
William Styron, author, and Rose Styron
Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) and Sally Bender
Peter Tufo, ambassador to Hungary, and Countess Zita Pallavicini
Peter S. Ujvagi, Toledo, Ohio, City Council, and Kriztina Ujvagi
Andrew Vajna, Cinergi Productions, and Kata Dobo
Balint Vazsonyi, Center for the American Founding, and Barbara Vazsonyi
Adrienne Vittadini, Adrienne Vittadini Inc., and Gian Luigi Vittadini
Elie Wiesel, Boston University, and Marion Wiesel
CAPTION: Hungarian President Arpad Goncz and his wife Zsuzsanna Goncz with the Clintons at last night's state dinner.
CAPTION: In the receiving line: Hillary Clinton greets author Susan Sontag.
CAPTION: Tony Curtis and his wife, Jill, on the way into the state dinner.