THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY
I got a phone call from the Clinton White House in the late afternoon of Dec. 14, 1993. Prime Minister József Antall, the first democratically elected premier of post-Communist Hungary, had died after a long illness.
The White House was inviting me to be part of the U.S. delegation to the state funeral of the late prime minister. I was to be at Andrews Air Force Base at 6:30 the following evening to depart for Budapest.
The official delegation was headed by Ambassador Madeleine Albright, then U.S. representative to the United Nations, later secretary of State. Several other prominent people were also in the delegation, including author Diane Person and senior State Department officials.
Vice President Al Gore was to join our delegation in Budapest. I was the only Hungarian-born member of the delegation.
An Air Force jet whisked us into the sky late that evening. Ms. Albright occupied a private cabin, while the rest of us, including State Department escorts and a security detail, were ensconced in comfortable reclining chairs in the middle of the aircraft. A well appointed galley with two Air Force stewards — eager to meet our every need for sustenance and refreshments — took up the back of the airplane.
As we sped toward Europe, I realized that the flight, past New York, north over Newfoundland, over to Shannon, Ireland, and on to Central Europe, was retracing in reverse the path that had brought my family and me to America in 1957.
Now, instead of a refugee from communism whose only knowledge of English was singing “Yankee Doodle” and saying “please” and “thank you,” I was returning to my homeland as a member of a presidential delegation. Only in America.
In the days before the official state funeral, our small delegation’s time was taken up with embassy and State Department briefings, one-on-one meetings, and sidebars with other delegations. We also had an opportunity to meet and rub shoulders with Polish President Lech Walesa.
The night before the funeral, our delegation was invited by John Birch, the U.S. ambassador to Hungary, to have supper with the British delegation at their embassy. The delegation was headed by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, now Dame Margaret.
The baroness came down a sweeping staircase to greet the dinner guests individually. When she came to me, her eyes lit up. She took both of my hands and said: “How good to see you — it’s been some time since we met.”
I was astounded that she could possibly remember our brief encounter when she was a speaker for the Junior League’s “Toledo After Hours” event at the SeaGate Centre in 1992.
After all the greetings and niceties, we adjourned to a regal dining room. I do not remember the menu for the evening, or the quality of the wine, or who my dinner partner was.
I do remember that we were in the presence of two of the sharpest, brightest minds of the 20th Century: Ms. Albright and Mrs. Thatcher. The polite conversation around the table soon died down, and we listened in awe to the two of them throughout a five-course meal and dessert.
These two great minds debated major and minor global issues, from the Middle East to emerging democracies in Central Europe, national health care, and the efficacy of the European Union.
Thrust, parry, and counterthrust — the conversational sabers were singing. Liberal and conservative viewpoints were challenged and debated, all with finesse and grace.
And then, just as quickly, it was over. Mrs. Thatcher’s aide suggested it was time for her ladyship to retire.
We had one last after-dinner drink and tea in the parlor. As we were saying our goodbyes, Mrs. Thatcher came up to me and said: “So sorry, I thought you were Larry Eagleburger,” a former U.S. secretary of State.
The next day, our delegation paid our respects at the catafalque of Prime Minister Antall. We participated in the emotional and historic state funeral before flying back — now to my America.
Peter Ujvagi is chief of public policy and legislative affairs for Lucas County. Born in Hungary, he became an American citizen in 1967.