Joe and Jill Biden – Photo: wikipedia

Biden, wife stayed at Lake Balaton in 1977

Honeymoon over for Hungary as Democrats return

United States Presidents of the Democratic persuasion and their ambassadors to Hungary have repeatedly accused the right-wing Fidesz/Orbán governments since 2010 of autocratic tendencies, and the incoming Joe Biden has already stirred the pot. Perhaps, though, the new President may also harbour a soft spot for the country, if only for having spent his honeymoon behind the Iron Curtain at Lake Balaton in 1977.

Joe and Jill Biden visited Budapest and the lake on what was a rather unconventional honeymoon, having brought along Joe’s two children from his first marriage, Beau and Hunter. The two boys had been seriously injured in a car accident that killed their mother, Biden’s first wife Neilia, and their sister Naomi, in December 1972.

Charles Gati, a senior research professor at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, says Joe and Jill, who met on a blind date in March 1975 and married in New York City on June 17, 1977, chose the communist country at the behest of US Representative Tom Lantos, a Hungarian American who was born in Budapest in 1928.

Biden had been sworn into the Senate on January 3, 1973 at the hospital where his sons were being treated, and [Lantos began his political career as an adviser in Senator Biden’s Washington office. They were like-minded people, keen to support human rights and liberal democracy. Biden and his second wife accepted Lantos’ advice to honeymoon near Lake Balaton, and according to Hungarian Spectrum website:

“Tom Lantos organised everything and to Biden’s surprise he announced that he and his wife Annette would accompany the newlyweds. And indeed they went. All four of them. Biden later recalled that Lantos presented Hungary as if he were the CEO of a tourist agency. ‘The best fish can be found in Hungary. Lake Balaton is the nicest lake in the whole world. The bridges across the Danube are the most spectacular in the universe. The world’s most famous scientists, actors, mathematicians, composers, and poets were all Hungarians.’ Not only Biden but scores of American delegations went to Hungary since and they all heard the same accolades from him.”

It was a rather unusual choice for an American politician at the time, in the midst of the Cold War and a dozen years before the Iron Curtain finally came down. Népszabadság (People’s Freedom) newspaper reported at the time that the Bidens spent a couple of days in Budapest, where they were received by István Huszár, vice-president of the Council of Ministers, Rudolf Rónai, president of the Institute of Cultural Relations, János Nagy, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, and István Török, Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade.

While there are no publicly available photos of the Bidens’ 1977 visit, Népszabadság did carry a short news item, mentioning that he met several high-ranking officials but omitting the personal reason for coming to Hungary.

Possibly when the incoming Biden has defeated the coronavirus pandemic, revived its accompanying wrecked US economy and overcome the threat of armed white-supremacist terrorists, he and the First Lady may consider returning to Hungary on a sentimental journey. Next year will be their silver wedding anniversary.

How welcome they would be is open to debate. While still the Democratic presidential candidate for the November 2020 election, Biden said in a televised town hall event in Pennsylvania: “You see what’s happened in everything from Belarus to Poland to Hungary, and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world … this President [Donald Trump] embraces all the thugs in the world.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán met Trump in the Oval Office in Washington DC in May 2019 and told Reuters in September 2020 he was convinced Trump would be re-elected and said he had no plans for any other outcome. He described a Trump victory as his “Plan A”.

Orbán clashed with President Barack Obama’s Administration, in which Biden served as Vice-President, over what Orbán’s critics have described as an erosion of democratic values by his governments. The nationalist prime minister accused US Democrats of “moral imperialism”.

Biden’s remark in Pennsylvania prompted a retort from Hungary’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Péter Szíjjártó, that the comment had nothing in common with reality. Szíjjártó said that before attacking Hungary, Biden should answer corruption charges against him in connection with Ukraine.

“It would be great if Joe Biden could tell us why he put pressure on the Ukrainian government to fire its chief prosecutor, and how all of this related to the investigation into his son’s [Hunter’s] Ukrainian energy deals grinding to a halt,” the minister said.

In Népszava (People’s Word), Gábor Horváth said he didn’t read Biden’s words as an accusation that Hungary and Poland are in the same basket as Belarus or as defining their governments as being totalitarian. Horváth admitted that it was problematic for Biden Jr to use his father’s position as US Vice-President to get a well-paid job in a Ukrainian gas company.

However, he believed the accusations against Biden and his son are prompted by Russian secret services. Therefore, he concluded, the Hungarian Prime Minister wanted to please President Putin of Russia when giving credit to those rumours.

On Mandiner news outlet, Barnabás Heincz said Hungary could perhaps pass over what he saw as Biden’s “dumb and ill-considered statement” or ask him whether he can show Hungary on the world map. But Heinz witnessed police brutality against peaceful demonstrators in Belarus, and thus found Biden’s words particularly out of place. He concluded by remarking: “This is what we can expect if the Democrats return to the White House.”

And after a suggestion was made in an article published by Politico that US President Biden should intervene in European politics and support forces seeking punitive action against Poland and Hungary, Justice Minister Judit Varga said on Facebook: “A well-targeted blow is expected from the American leader to defend liberal democracy.”

The post, in Hungarian and English, said: “We could even call it comical that the press is proposing the use of American force against European countries. But we also know that, unfortunately, most politicians dread the power of the international liberal media and would rather follow their expectations if they want to remain popular in international politics.”

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