WASHINGTON — Why so many writers and intellectuals at the head of the past year's revolutions in Eastern Europe? Vaclav Havel, a playwright, is the president of Czechoslovakia. Writers and professors play key roles in the transformation of Poland and East Germany. Meanwhile, in the West we have Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, George Bush. Even their admirers don't call them intellectuals.
Arpad Goncz twinkles. Compact, neat, florid, balding, 68 years old with a precise white mustache. He is the president of Hungary, formerly a steel worker, welder, pipefitter, agricultural engineer, lawyer, playwright, translator and political prisoner.
He is, in fact, the translator of George Bush, of his book "Looking Forward," or as it is in Hungarian, "Elore tekintvel." Still, Mr. Bush is not what we usually think of as a writer.
"It is easy to explain," Mr. Goncz says. Indeed, the prominent role of intellectuals is natural and expected, he says, and can be seen in Latin America as well as Eastern Europe.
"Under dictatorship, it is only the writer and the artist who preserve understanding of the human dimension. Those who are making politics are not really experts or engineers of human problems, but only what you might call skilled laborers."
When creative politics is again possible, the creative people -- those with some knowledge of history, economics, psychology, sociology -- are the only ones able to respond. "It is amateurs like us who must take the responsibility -- "
At this point a curious thing happens. President Goncz enters into negotiations with his interpreter. Though a translator of (among others) Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, E. L. Doctorow, William Styron, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Alice Walker, John Updike and . . . uh, George Bush . . . Mr. Goncz prefers to speak Hungarian and be interviewed through an interpreter. For one thing, it is near the end of a long, overscheduled day, and he is tired. For another, he can edit himself as he listens to his words come out of the interpreter's mouth.
"Not 'amateurs.' " He explains his meaning to the interpreter.
"Yes, 'amateurs,' " says the interpreter.
"No, 'dilettantes,' " insists the president of Hungary.
"It is dilettantes like us who must take the responsibility," the cowed interpreter supplies.
The word, as it turns out, is crucial to a little game Mr. Goncz has been building up to. He has been asked the question about intellectuals in politics many more times than this particular interpreter has answered it for him.
"It is a strange process in Hungary," Mr. Goncz says (through the interpreter). "In the last two or three years, dilettantes started a reform movement. From among them, gifted amateurs [yes, now 'amateurs' is exact] arise to push the work forward. Probably by the end of the current parliament [in four years] our first few fully professional politicians will be in place."
Until that happens, he says, "we hold a mandate to save the country."
We intellectuals? We dilettantes? The interpreter (or the president) wisely leaves it unclear. It is in any event a claim at once magnificently self-aggrandizing and charmingly self-deprecating.
Similar processes are unfolding in Latin America and in much of the Third World, Mr. Goncz concludes. "Please do not see this as a miracle, but as a phenomenon."
And the dead-serious corollary completes the answer to the original question of why in the East but not in the West intellectuals dominate politics. (No 15-second sound bites from Mr. Goncz.)
In the United States and Western Europe, where "fully professional politicians" who "understand the human dimension" are in control, intellectuals are not required to save the country, .. but merely to criticize, to remind the politicians of their better angels. One wonders how many of the U.S. writers Mr. Goncz translates would agree.
The president represents the Alliance of Free Democrats, a political party that has been described as consisting of "liberal conservatives." It is decidedly not the largest of the six parties represented in Hungary's first post-Communist parliament, but Mr. Goncz nevertheless was the parliament's overwhelming choice for president.
One man's life: sentenced to life imprisonment in 1957 for political activities, amnestied in 1963, elected president in 1990. Czechoslovakia's President Vaclav Havel has a similar biography.
"When thinking of my own life, I almost don't recognize it as being my life," Mr. Goncz remarked to an interviewer from Interview magazine.
"It's a bit surrealistic, a bit grotesque," he told another interviewer, from USA Today. "Thank God I haven't forgotten to laugh at myself."