The first few days of Pál Schmitt as president of Hungary

Pál Schmitt is already the butt of jokes in Hungary. Start with the fact that he is portrayed as a man who shamelessly served every regime, whose only concern was his own career and well being. People consider him to be a man without principles. He went from being a sports manager with ministerial rank in the Kádár regime to being an ambassador during the socialist period all the way to being “the flunky” of Viktor Orbán. I’m not kidding, that is what they call him. Or at least this is how I translated the word “csicskás,” originally used to describe the man servant of an officer in the Hungarian army.

The other problem with Pál Schmitt is that he is not a very smart man. Admittedly, he speaks several foreign languages, apparently quite well, but one doesn’t need a very high IQ for that. Moreover, as a fencer and an Olympic champion he had the opportunity to hone his knowledge of foreign languages during his frequent visits abroad. And once he finished college he received a job with a chain of Hungarian state-owned luxury hotels frequented mostly by foreigners.

Even people who like Schmitt admit that he is often careless and says things that shouldn’t be said. Until now this fault didn’t make a huge difference because he wasn’t in the limelight. Once he was “an independent” candidate for mayor of Budapest backed by Fidesz, but otherwise he was pretty much in the background. However, even during that campaign, eight years ago, he made the mistake of showing up in a “bocskai” at the time when it was practically the uniform of the far right. For example, in 1998 the whole MIÉP delegation to parliament showed up in “bocskai” at the opening session of parliament. Anyone who in 2002 put on a “bocskai” wanted to please the far right. Considering that Schmitt tried to portray himself as a moderate “independent,” this move was unfortunate.

By now the “bocskai” is practically the uniform of Jobbik. In fact, Jobbik’s web page that carried pictures of the party’s candidates for parliament showed practically all the Jobbik hopefuls in “bocskai.” I wrote about “bocskai” in the past, but I don’t think that I showed a picture of the outfit. Here is Schmitt in a “bocskai,” shaking hands with Viktor Orbán.


It seems that Schmitt’s “bocskai’ in 2002 wasn’t an aberration. He is in love with the “national” style. His latest is that, as president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee, he insisted that the official uniform of the Hungarian team attending the Junior Olympic games will have to reflect the country’s “national heritage.” So they hired a “salon” that advertises almost exclusively in far right publications like Magyar Demokrata to design an appropriate outfit. Here is the result.

Schitt a olimpikonokkal

Rumors are circulating that for a number of years Schmitt has been trying to learn to play the “tárogató,” a Hungarian double-reed instrument associated with anti-Habsburg feelings. It does have a lovely sound, and I recommend listening to it here. All in all, it seems that for Schmitt national tradition is critically important.

Less than a month ago an editorial appeared in The Washington Post that was very harsh on Viktor Orbán and his government. The article reminded the readers that the last time Orbán was prime minister he “made himself a persona non grata in Washington” and claimed that if “he seeks … to weaken democratic institutions, he will merely ensure that he once again becomes a pariah in Western capitals.” The Hungarian government was outraged and the appropriate ministry even wrote a letter to the editor that, by the way, wasn’t published. In it they especially objected to the claim that the current president “will be replaced by one of the prime minister’s nationalist allies.” Schmitt is not a nationalist, they announced. Where did the author/authors of this editorial get this idea?  It seems that the piece was written, or influenced, by someone who knows Pál Schmitt better than most of us do.

Since his inauguration the not too sympathetic Hungarian public has been watching Schmitt’s every move. First of all, there was his inaugural speech about which I wrote a few days ago, pointing out that it would have been wiser to avoid the Albert Wass quotation. What I didn’t mention at the time was that the speech contained another quotation attributed to István Széchenyi. I must say that I was surprised that the great Széchenyi said that “mankind’s mode of existence is the nation,” but I didn’t linger over the quotation. I figured that early nineteenth-century nationalistic romantics said all sorts of not very clever things and this might be one of them.

But then came Ferenc Lendvai who wrote a lovely piece in about “fallacies on the presidential level.” He noted that he spent hours trying to find the so-called Széchenyi quotation without any success. He asked for help. So, I decided to look for it myself. I was lucky because in the late nineteenth century a volume of “selected works” of Széchenyi was published that is available in .pdf format online. This is not a short book. It is 808 pages long. If the sentence doesn’t appear in this volume, most likely the quotation is bogus. I did find a sentence that had the words “mankind” and “nation” in it, but it bore no resemblance to the one Schmitt’s speech writer came up with.

I found the sentence in one of the best known books of Széchenyi entitled The People of the East (1841). It reads like this: “For mankind to maintain one of its nations, to save its characteristics, to express them in their immaculate quality, to cultivate its strength, its virtues and thus to create something entirely new is one of the noblest goals that will lead to the glorification of mankind.” Not exactly easy prose for modern ears but in plainer language Széchenyi tells his readers that while one ought to cherish tradition one must change, one must modernize, and while keeping old traditions one must create something new.

So Pál Schmitt’s Széchenyi seems to be a fictional character. But that’s not all. The man who is supposed to safeguard “the democratic operation of the State” should at least be familiar with the constitution he is supposed to defend. It turns out that he is not. I must admit that I didn’t notice it. Indeed, when Schmitt said in his inaugural speech that he would like the new constitution to contain a reference to sports I just snickered. In my opinion such provisions don’t belong in a constitution. Well, discovered that there is already a mention of sports (or at least physical exercise) in the constitution. According to Article 70/D Hungarians have the right to the highest possible level of physical and mental health. This can be achieved in part through “ensuring the possibility for regular physical exercise.” The writer of the blog sarcastically suggested that Schmitt read the constitution instead of the Bible, a reference to the Reverend Zoltán Balog’s (Fidesz undersecretary in charge of Roma affairs) praise of Schmitt as a perfect man because, among other things, he reads the Bible every day.

Then again, perhaps Schmitt has loftier goals in mind–that Hungarians have the right to the most competitive sports teams in the world!