In 1968, I was elected to Congress from the 17th Congressional District in Manhattan, known as the Silk Stocking District. My interests in Washington were diverse, ranging from mass transit to foreign affairs and human rights.
On May 7, 1976, I opened The New York Times in my office on Capitol Hill and saw a full-page advertisement paid for by the Committee for Human Rights in Romania. The ad recounted acts of repression by Nicolai Ceausescu, the Communist dictator of Romania.
My interest was piqued, and I wrote a letter to the Committee asking for more information. Congress was scheduled to renew Romania’s “Most Favored Nation” status which would allow it special trade benefits and was, as I recall, the only Communist country to be so favorably treated.
The leaders of the human rights organization came to see me in Washington. One of those leaders was Laszlo Hamos. He is now president of the successor organization named the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation.
He explained that ethnic Hungarians living in Romania were not accorded full citizenship rights and were persecuted by the Romanian government. The most glaring example was in the field of education.
He said that while the Romanian constitution required that where any ethnic minority in a school district had 25 or more students requesting instruction in their own language, it had to be provided. However, the government was not providing that constitutional right to Hungarians; whereas any student, even if only one, requested education in Romanian, it was provided.
There were other acts of discrimination, as well. The committee pointed out the Romanian government was vulnerable to pressure on human rights from the United States because the most favored nation status for Romania was then before the Congress for renewal.
I agreed to help.
I submitted for publication in the Congressional Record a statement airing the grievances of the ethnic Hungarian minority. I circulated a proposed resolution ending most favored nation status and held a discussion in the Congress on the repression by the Ceausescu government of its ethnic Hungarian citizens. Joining me in all those efforts were two close friends and colleagues in the Congress, Congressmen Robert Drinan, S.J. and Chris Dodd, now a senator. We were later joined by Bella Abzug, Tom Downey, Steve Solarz, Morris Udall, and ultimately 54 congressmen in all.
Regrettably, President Carter supported the extension of the most favored nation status without guarantees on education for Hungarian students, and the status was renewed by the Congress.
But the wheel of history never stops turning. In 1977, I was elected Mayor of New York City. During my first year in office, the Romanian dictator came to town and was staying at the Waldorf Astoria. On April 18, 1978 at about midnight, I received a call from an old friend, Matt Nimetz, who was counselor to the State Department.
Nimetz said, “We have a problem and need your help. President Ceausescu of Romania is being picketed by thousands of Hungarian-Americans on behalf of ethnic Hungarians in Romania, complaining of discrimination against them. Tonight Ceausescu went to the Hungarian mission and now they worry about getting him back to the Waldorf-Astoria safely. Can you help?” I said, “Sure.” I called Bob McGuire, the police commissioner. He said, “I’ll take care of it, Mr. Mayor, and will call you back when it’s done.” He did, about an hour or so later.
McGuire reported that he personally escorted President Ceausescu back to the Waldorf-Astoria. There had been only one incident, an egg was thrown and hit Ceausescu's limousine. I called Matt back and explained what happened. He was relieved. About 8:00 a.m. — I was then in my office — the phone rang and it was a diplomat at the Romanian Mission, saying Ceausescu was threatening to cut his trip short and wanted to see me.
I arrived at the hotel at about 9:30 a.m. and entered the room where Ceausescu and American Ambassador William Luers (later president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) were standing. What happened in that room is recounted in my book “Politics”:
So McGuire and I go up there, and while we are in the car he tells me what occurred the night before. He describes how there was an egg thrown at the President’s car, and he tells me of the President’s upset. We get to the hotel and there are State Department people and the city’s commissioner to the United Nations, Gillian Sorensen, and others, and we all go upstairs together to meet Ceausescu. The President says, "This was an outrage. You should not permit this picketing of me."
I say, "Mr. President, firstly, you should feel complimented. They only picket very important people. They demonstrate against me all the time. I don’t mind. I walk right through the picket lines. They demonstrate against President Carter when he comes. All it means is that you are important." Well, he was a little mollified, but the State Department people are pacing back and forth. He says, "Well, if President Carter came to Romania, I would not permit any picketing of him."
I say, "Well, you have to understand we have a different kind of society here."
He says, "Well, if in the future you can’t control your people let me send in my troops."
I say, "No. Thank you for your offer, Mr. President. But that won’t be necessary.”
A similar version appears in a book by Ion Mihai Pacepa entitled, “Red Horizons: Chronicles of a Communist Spy Chief.” He defected to the West during the Cold War. Pacepa quoted Ceausescu, on hearing I was coming to the hotel, as saying of me, “I don’t want to talk with that dirty Jew.”
Only in America.
Perhaps you will understand now why I so much enjoyed being mayor for 12 years. In 1989, a week before I left office, the Romanian people overthrew the Communist regime. Ceausescu and his wife were arrested and shot.
No one came to help them.
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