As I'm listening to the radio and reading Internet comments on articles about Pál Schmitt's nomination for the post of president of Hungary I have the distinct feeling that even those who sympathize with Fidesz and more or less approve of the Orbán government's activities in the last two months are not exactly thrilled with Orbán's choice. The most frequently voiced criticism is that Schmitt is spineless, servile, and not really suited for the job. One also hears often enough that he loyally served the Kádár regime but now takes every opportunity to present himself as a man who was, if not actually persecuted, disadvantaged because of his family background.
One enterprising guy expressed his opinion in a video entitled "Caligula lova, Schmitt Pál, Incitatus for President." That is, he compares Schmitt to Caligula's horse. I also spotted two panegyric books. The first was entitled "Schmitt, the teamworker"; the publication date (2002) indicates that it was written in connection with Schmitt's running for lord mayor of Budapest. What I find especially amusing is that although he was an "independent" candidate, the book was published by Heti Válasz Publishing House, financed by a foundation established in the last months of the first Orbán administration. Nice independence! The second book was published in 2005 when Pál Schmitt was heading the Fidesz list for the European parliamentary elections. The title was "Being a guest of Pál Schmitt" and it was co-authored by two sports writers. From the description it sounds like a coffee table book with lots of photos.
In a long article (Mozgó Világ, May 2005) József Nagy compares the self-portraits in the two books and finds that the stories don't always jibe. For instance, in one book he claims that his parents lived on Bérkocsis utca and in the other Gyorskocsi utca. The latter is an elegant address, the former certainly not. In the first book he claims that his high-society parents and he as a small child were expelled from Budapest for political reasons in the early 1950s to some godforsaken village where they lived in a small hut at the end of a courtyard. In the second book he corrects the story: reality and unreality get mixed up in his head. After all, the family wasn't expelled from Budapest. Instead, it turns out that after the war when food was scarce in Budapest, the family moved to a small village twice during the summer months. There are similar lapses in his recollections of what he did or didn't do in 1956 when he was 14 years old. In the first book he claims that he and his friends went to a nearby police station and, although there were weapons all over the place, he didn't dare to take any. In the second book there are excerpts from his diary at the time when it turned out that they took not only weapons and ammunition but also a compass, running shoes, and a jersey.
When he was on the national fencing team Schmitt travelled a lot. Famous athletes had many privileges in those days. For example, they could bring into the country duty free certain items that were either scarce in Hungary or because of their superior quality could be sold for a small fortune. Of course, there was a certain limit on these items but the custom officers closed their eyes when it came to these youngsters. Schmitt apparently was always cautious. His "speciality" was fabric that was suitable for making neckties. If the limit was 5 meters, he didn't smuggle in 10 but only 7. This way he minimized the risk of getting into serious trouble.
From the 2002 book one learns that "domestic trade" at Karl Marx University wasn't an elegant major. He thought that he could be accepted as an international trade major because of his knowledge of languages, but he had only a B average in high school, so that was out of the question. In my opinion, in those days very few people were accepted to university at all without an A average unless the student came from a working class or peasant background. However, Schmitt claims that his parents were middle class, though he doesn't specify what his father and mother did for a living.
His career in the hotel business ended in 1981 when he became the head of the "People's Stadium and Its Kindred Institutions." I must say that I did't realize what an important job this was. The conglomerate employed 1,300 men and women who operated several sports centers. In 1982 the company also acquired the right to manage the new Budapest Sports Arena. Schmitt kept this job until 1983, when he became the deputy director of the National Office of Physical Education and Sports. He also became president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee and the Hungarian member of the International Olympic Committee when Árpád Csanádi, who served in both capacities, died that year.
Comments on Pál Schmitt often speak of his "interesting" role in the Hungarian Olympic Committee's decision to follow the Soviet lead and boycott the Los Angeles Olympics. The party leaders called in Schmitt one evening and told him to hold off on the swearing-in ceremony for the country's athletes. A few weeks later the Hungarian Olympic Committee voted unanimously with one abstention to follow the ukase. The brave man wasn't Pál Schmitt because he happened to be in Bulgaria on some very important mission. What a coincidence! Thus, Schmitt didn't vote for the boycott but he "couldn't be called a resistance fighter either," as Schmitt himself admitted in the 2002 book. Schmitt himself, by the way, didn't miss the Los Angeles games because he attended as a member of the International Olympic Committee.
So, one can safely say that Schmitt was part of the establishment and his position as deputy head of "Állami Ifjúsági- és Sporthivatal" was a very important one. This organization before 1990 was basically the sports ministry of the regime, and it disappeared with the change of regime. The affairs of youth and sports were taken over by the Prime Minister's Office and Schmitt's position was eliminated. But, of course, he was still head of the Hungarian Olympic Committee and a member of the International Olympic Committee.
It was in 1993 that Schmitt began his diplomatic career. Apparently he lobbied vigorously for an ambassadorship and was offered one of three capitals: London, Ottawa, or Madrid. Surely, out of these three the most prestigious post would have been London, but he chose Madrid for reasons I mentioned yesterday. It is clear from the accounts I read that Schmitt very badly wanted to be president of the International Olympic Committee and he tried to adjust his whole diplomatic career in the service of this goal. But that is another story that is too complicated to recount here. Maybe tomorrow.