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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release June 8, 1999
                      REMARKS BY PRESIDENT CLINTON
                        IN AN EXCHANGE OF TOASTS

                             The East Room

8:35 P.M. EDT

PRESIDENT CLINTON: 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. (Applause.)

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. (Applause.)

(A toast is offered.)

PRESIDENT GONCZ: Mr. President, Mrs. Clinton, dear friends. Back home in my own country I've got the privilege of speaking in my own native language. It would be becoming to speak English here, but there is one thing I learned when I was a writer -- that lesson I learned, that if you cannot express yourself in an adequate way in that language, then you'd rather not deliver speeches in that language.

I do apologize for not speaking English, because eventually I might end up as Kossuth did when he was here. As it was mentioned, he learned English also in prison, as I did. And he had excellent rhetoric abilities. And after one of the enlightening speeches he made here in America, two listeners started to whisper between each other, "I never thought that English was so close to Hungarian." (Laughter.)

Now, this time, I would like to spare you that experience. My friend speaks better English than I do.

Mr. President mentioned something about my past as a translator. I learned English in the prison through the works of Kennedy. First, I translated the speeches of Kennedy. This was something like lawful -- translated for the higher authorities in the party. It was strictly confidential. I am terribly sorry that President Kennedy never had the chance to see himself how authentic the Hungarian translation was.

But I'd like to come back on the events of today. Officially, I was in the White House in an official capacity in April 1993. At that time I met the President, and there were some other heads of state also here. And then when I looked around, I had the wind of youthfulness, optimism, and an air of determination. Today, I experienced the same: a determined leadership that decides the fate of the world; responsibility and profound humanity.

We have had long discussions today. It is a God-given gift that my visit that had been prepared for months was realized today -- all of these days going to be decisive. This is a crucial day when the Kosovo crisis is raising its beak and it's going to come to completion.

We have had a long discussion with Mr. President, not only the two of us. But if I were to characterize the meeting, I would say that it was not negotiations, diplomatic negotiations, but thinking together. And this was the first time I really felt, genuinely, that the two countries are allies, and a real alliance is characterized by identical values and also that you approach the problems to be solved from the same angle.

Even during the air campaign we tried to find the man, a human being in that. And we fully agreed that the peace of Europe is unthinkable without the peace in the Balkans. And without the understanding and the cooperation of the people in the Balkans, it is inconceivable to have peace in that region.

The discussions we have had today will have a very significant imprint not only because of the political implications, but also because I made a great acquaintance of a genuine, real man.

During my presidency we have met about four or five times, but we never had a chance before to think together about the course of the world. We did that today. And we also found that it is the human being that is the common denominator: the man in Kosovo, the Serbian man; let me tell you, also the Hungarian man, who has got responsibility for the Serbs, as well, after having lived together with them for hundreds and hundreds of years.

And if one day the Democratic leadership in Serbia is created, we Hungarians are ready to share our experience in building democracy with the Serbian people, with the Serbian leadership. And we are prepared to do what we have done with other neighboring countries already. We are going to tell them not only what we have done correctly and well, what we are going to tell them where we made a mistake, where we made an error, because it's a matter of course that sometimes one makes mistakes. But if through good advice you can avoid at least one mistake, then it was worth it.

We are prepared to extend a helping hand to a democratic Serbian government, to the Serbian people, because we know what bombing means from our own experience. We know what has to be restored -- bridges, oil refineries, infrastructure, but primarily and foremost, the belief of the people in the future -- the faith in humanity, belief in the willingness of the people to help each other.

And if we manage to heal all the wounds that were acquired during the war since 1992, and we manage to resolve all the hatred, which may take even two generations, then we have to give them help and assistance to make the first step.

It was a gratifying and a good feeling to me to have understanding between the two sides. Because you can feed in information about the amount of bombs you want to drop; you can feed in costs; but there is one thing you cannot feed in, in a computer -- the past of a nation, the mentality of the people, the moral feelings, eventual solidarity or hostility. I can see that the American leadership is ready to consider that, as well. after the success of the air campaign and, perhaps, even more so, afterwards.

The serious negotiations we have had here in Washington, D.C., I will take that home with me as one of the greatest experiences in my life. First, because I was really convinced that it is possible for a big country and a small country to become real allies on the basis of equality. And I do hope, Mr. President, you're not going to misunderstand me if I say, I am taking with me the experience of a new friendship, as well, with me.

Perhaps I cannot say anymore than that. If you want, I can tell you all the political slogans that you know by heart here, but I suppose these few things are a lot more worthy. For the Hungarians, for the Serbs, for the Kosovars, for the whole of Central Europe, I do hope, out of the bottom of my heart, that all the generals of NATO -- and perhaps it will all help us to understand the events and developments of our days.

Once again, I apologize for speaking in Hungarian, but I suppose it was better to tell that in Hungarian than mumbling it in English. (Laughter.) Thank you for listening to me. (Applause.)

END 8:57 P.M. EDT