On this Thanksgiving, Agnieszka Romaszewska, Magdalena Hermanova, Attila Ledenyl and Jaroslaw Guzy -- pilgrims to Washington from the new democracies of Eastern Europe -- seem to feel more thankful for America than most Americans do.
They arrived here three months ago, grateful for a decade of bloated U.S. defense budgets, which they believe hastened the fall of communism in their region. Then, as witnesses to the debate over the federal budget deficit, they heard Americans revile excessive defense spending as a precursor to domestic fiscal disaster.
They came here to examine a country whose tradition of political freedom inspired them through years of communist repression, only to watch American voters forfeit, in their view, a precious right -- to change the status quo -- by returning more than 90 percent of their incumbents to the Congress.
"Coming from Hungary, where we once thought change was hopeless and then organized to make it happen, this aspect was very disappointing," said Ledenyl, 24, an official of Hungary's Federation of Young Democrats, once an opposition group and now a major political force.
"We were taught to believe in and fight for change -- nothing is forever," said Romaszewska, 28, a Polish journalist imprisoned as a democracy activist during martial law. "Here I find that I feel like a revolutionary when I look at American politics."
They are tough critics, these young radicals who turned their worlds upside down and now seek to build better ones. Not that Washington is short of detractors at the moment, awash as it is in blame for the nation's political and economic hard times.
But these critiques have bite, considering the reverence for American democracy that inspires them. Moreover, in a city built on rehash, the fresh perspective offers a rare invitation to rethink truths so basic that leaders have stopped talking about them, or truths so loudly talked about that no one has listened in years.
These particular pilgrims were brought here by the National Forum Foundation, one of many groups that arrange Washington internships for Eastern European activists eager for a taste of democracy, American-style.
They worked for Republicans and Democrats in Congress, for liberal and conservative publications and on the campaign staffs of Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.), one of the few incumbents who lost Nov. 6, and Democrat James P. Moran Jr., who unseated him.
They also met many Washington "players," as in a recent, post-election session with Lynn Cutler, vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
The visitors told Cutler they were disturbed about lavish campaign war chests, "the influence capitalism has on democracy," as Romaszewska put it.
"Millions and billions spent on campaigns, mostly on commercials!" said a dismayed Hermanova, 24, deputy spokeswoman for Civic Forum, the party of Czech President Vaclav Havel. "In Czechoslovakia, when people see commercials, they turn the television off. They can't watch the same commercial 1,000 times."
"That's about the point at which they begin to pay attention here," Cutler shrugged, stating a truism of American advertising.
The downtown march of a handful of Ku Klux Klansmen several weeks ago, protected by thousands of District police officers, was among the most riveting spectacles of their stay, the visitors said.
Guzy, 34, of Warsaw, a leader of the student branch of Solidarity during martial law, saw in it an awesome commitment by the government to protecting free speech. "I'm sure those black officers despised these guys, but they defended their right to demonstrate," he said.
Hermanova protested, insisting that in a predominantly black city, surely the people had higher priorities than protecting white extremists.
"Freedom of speech is a pretty important priority," countered Guzy, who spent a year in prison for exercising his.
Ledenyl voiced a common complaint: "One thing I learned about Americans -- they like to simplify things." Political debate is all slogans and almost no substance, the visitors said, as if everything from the Persian Gulf crisis to poverty is part of a televised campaign.
Hermanova, upset about the poverty on the streets, tired of hearing "Republicans say they're against new taxes and Democrats say you need taxes to solve the problem. It's like in a computer. Everything is either 1 or 0. But life is not 1 or 0. And meanwhile people are still suffering."
The four apologized for being so critical, explaining that, as radicals, it is their habit never to accept things as they are. Besides, they said, their "new worlds" can benefit from learning of America's shortcomings as well as its achievements.
Said Romaszewska: "We want to make Poland better than America."