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Remarks at the State Dinner Honoring President Arpad Goncz of Hungary

June 08, 1999

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the White House. And a special welcome to President and Mrs. Goncz, members of the Hungarian delegation.

Exactly 150 years ago, in 1849, a young Congressman from Illinois, serving his first and only term in the U.S. House of Representatives, offered a resolution supporting the Hungarian people's struggle for independence and democracy. At that time, the leader of the Hungarian freedom movement, of course, was Lajos Kossuth. The Congressman was Abraham Lincoln. The bonds between our citizens, based not only on the large number of distinguished Hungarian-Americans in our country but also on our shared aspirations for freedom and democracy, have very deep roots.

I would like to say a special word of thanks to Congressman Tom and Annette Lantos, and others who have helped them, because they are responsible for the fact that a bust of Kossuth now stands in the rotunda of our Capitol. Ralph Waldo Emerson called him "the angel of freedom." He was only the second non-American— Lafayette being the first—to address both Houses of Congress. Crowds greeted him wherever he went. He was a true American hero.

Mr. President, like Kossuth, you taught yourself English while you were in prison, at a time when you had just escaped a death sentence and faced a life term because you stood for liberty. Later, you translated the works of many great writers: Edith Wharton, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Miller, James Baldwin, John Updike, Alice Walker. And at least two I think are here tonight, William Styron and Susan Sontag. These translations offered Hungarians a window on the West and earned you many admirers at home. This work is just one part, but it is a vital part, of your contribution to ending the division of Europe.

I even noted in preparing for this that you translated into Hungarian President Bush's 1988 campaign biography, "Looking Forward." [Laughter] Now by the time Al Gore and I published our book, "Putting People First," in 1992, you were already President of Hungary and unfortunately too busy to translate this profoundly important work. [Laughter] At least, I choose to believe that is the reason you did not choose to translate it. [Laughter]

In this decade, your own works have been translated and published in English, your plays performed in the United States. They are a brave set of explorations of political conflict and war, freedom and betrayal, the struggle for daily survival and dignity in the face of adversity. Americans have absorbed these works as we have watched you lead your nation, deepening freedom there and promoting human rights and ethnic tolerance around the world and especially in your own region. The only Hungarian head of state to make an official visit to Romania in this century, you told the joint session of Parliament there that ethnic minorities enrich their nations and form a valuable connective link in strengthening relations between nations.

Your vision of people living together and nations living together, resolving differences peacefully, drawing strength from their diversity, treating all people with equal dignity, this will form the basis of a better future for Europe and the world. It is at the heart of what we have been trying to do in our efforts to reverse ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and to build a southeastern Europe in which all people can live together in dignity and freedom.

Now, Mr. President, normally when I propose a toast to a visiting head of state, I say something like "cheers." I have been advised by the State Department that the Hungarian word for "cheers" is, and I want to quote from the memo I got—[laughter]—"practically impossible to pronounce correctly." [Laughter] I have accepted their considered judgment. [Laughter] So, instead, I would like to salute you and Mrs. Goncz with the words that greeted Kossuth on streamers all across New York City on the day he arrived in America: Isten Hozta. Welcome.

I ask all of you to join me in a toast to President and Mrs. Goncz and to the people of Hungary. Thank you very much.

NOTE: The President spoke at 8:35 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Maria Zsuzsanna Gonter, wife of President Goncz. The transcript released by the Office of the Press Secretary also included the remarks of President Goncz.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at the State Dinner Honoring President Arpad Goncz of Hungary Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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