'Guitar Ambassador' Goes to the Movies



Andras Simonyi captivated Washington with his rock band when he was the Hungarian ambassador. Now he\'s trying to boost Hungary\'s film business

Young Andras Simonyi, desperate to become a rock musician at the beginning of the 1970s in communist Hungary, played the bass guitar and hung out with members of the now-legendary Hungarian rock band LGT. His taste tended toward music that might have been seen as radical at the time, even though the regime was loosening its grip on the country\'s cultural scene.

Concerned about the difficult path his friend had chosen, Gabor Presser, founder of LGT, one day told Simonyi, \"With this attitude and your love of rock music, you\'ll die here. You get this out of your head and go to university!\"

Simonyi took that advice, but four decades later, as Hungarian ambassador to the United States, it was rock music that he used to win hearts and minds in Washington, D.C.

During his five years as ambassador from 2002 to 2007, Simonyi managed to get Hungary a much bigger hearing on the diplomatic scene than its size and economic strength might warrant. In the name of what he calls an \"out-of-the-box\" approach to diplomacy, Simonyi founded a rock band with senior Washington policymakers called the Coalition of the Willing. He also appeared on a popular late-night American TV show, The Colbert Report.

Today, as chairman of the board of Korda Studios, a new state-of-the art film studio in Hungary, he is doing what many call \"film diplomacy,\" spending a lot of time in Hollywood working to lure producers to his country.

Simonyi, 56, is married with a son and a daughter, both in their twenties. His father was a trade representative whose job took the family to Denmark for five years. That is where an 11-year-old Simonyi discovered rock music. By the time he returned to Hungary he was so crazy about rock \'n\' roll that in 1968 he found out where his favorite musician, Steve Winwood, then a member of the band Traffic, was staying while performing in Budapest. He waited for Winwood at the hotel and managed to meet him.

In the end, he did not go into music but attended the Karl Marx University of Economics. From 1984 until 1989 he worked at the foreign relations department of the Socialist Worker\'s Party of Hungary. Soon afterward he entered the world of diplomacy: in 1992 he became deputy chief of mission to the European Communities, the precursor to the European Union, and NATO in Brussels. He went on to head the Hungarian liaison office to the alliance, and in 1999 he became the first Hungarian permanent representative to the NATO Council. In 2002 he was appointed ambassador to Washington by Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy.

\"He\'s incredibly talented. Most diplomats are either good analysts or good at making contacts, but he\'s good at both\" said Matyas Eorsi, a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, who has known Simonyi since he worked in Brussels. \"He also fully believed in what he was doing both at NATO and the U.S., and he is a workaholic. The image of Hungary improved at both places during his term. He has a sense for PR, too, which only a few ambassadors do. Only the best could do things like his appearance on The Colbert Report, which did a lot of good for the country,\" Eorsi said, adding that he was sorry to see Simonyi leave Hungary\'s diplomatic corps.

Gabor Horvath, the Washington bureau chief of a Hungarian newspaper at the time of Simonyi\'s ambassadorship, said, \"He placed Hungary in the same league with France or Italy in Washington, D. C., much higher than, for example, Poland, the Czech Republic, or Belgium. He\'s really good at knowing what is close to the heart of Americans.\"


Speaking at an elegant café in the Buda hills, Simonyi said, \"We wanted to put Hungary on the map. I wanted to show what is exciting [about the country], and we used some tools for this that no one had used before. We want to do the same at Korda Studios.\" He offered that his job as ambassador and film studio chairman have much in common.

Just out of a business meeting, Simonyi showed up in a business-casual light brown jacket and tie. He looks a few years younger than his age and has a ready smile. He held tight to his Blackberry, which rang from time to time throughout the interview. His energy seems barely containable even sitting down, as he often emphasized his points by hitting the table with his hand.

Working 14 to 16 hours a day and sometimes demanding similar hours from his staff, Simonyi made Hungary well-known in Washington. \"There were some basic diplomatic tasks to do every day, such as campaigning for the visa waiver program. Every day I had one or more hours for this, talking to senators, congressmen, and business leaders,\" Simonyi said.

But coming up with new approaches was the biggest part of the job. \"There are 196 ambassadors competing for the attention of the same people,\" he explained. Simonyi supported the Cuban immigrant community, filled the reception halls of the ambassador\'s residence with the works of the best contemporary Hungarian artists, and organized a Central and Eastern European photo exhibition in the National Gallery.

\"Of course, I had a team. But there\'s no doubt that it\'s all about leadership. There\'s no point in being ashamed of that or showing false modesty,\" he said.

But his secret weapon was the guitar.

Members of the Coalition of the Willing included Lincoln Bloomfield, former assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs; Daniel Poneman, former special assistant to President Bill Clinton; and Sandy Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and later to Russia, now ambassador to South Korea. The only professional musician was Jeff \"Skunk\" Baxter, a member of The Doobie Brothers in the 1970s, but even he is a foreign affairs expert, now chairing a congressional advisory board on missile defense.

The band gave many charity concerts in Washington, attended by prominent guests like Paul Wolfowitz, then president of the World Bank, helping earn Simonyi and the events organized by the Hungarian Embassy frequent mentions in the gossip section of The Washington Post.

\"My signature in D.C. was that I had a rock band. But it would have made me ridiculous if I did nothing else but play the guitar. First, you have to gain credibility as an ambassador, then you can play. No one questioned my background, but to achieve that I had to spend 10 years at NATO, to work throughout the Bosnian war and to behave as an ally in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars,\" Simonyi said.

\"By being able to speak English, I reached the heads, and with my rock band I reached the hearts,\" he said.

Simonyi became known outside of diplomatic circles when he appeared on The Colbert Report. In 2006 the Hungarian Economy Ministry announced that an online vote would decide the name of a new bridge across the Danube. Host Stephen Colbert, a political satirist whose screen persona is a raving egotist, got wind of the competition and urged his audience to get it named after him. Altogether, 17 million votes were cast for \"Colbert Bridge,\" which is 7 million more than the population of Hungary.

Simonyi had already been in touch with Colbert, along with other late-night TV hosts David Letterman and Conan O\'Brien, before the voting started. Fifteen minutes after the show aired, Simonyi was talking to Colbert on the phone, and they agreed that the ambassador would appear on the show.

\"I had been watching how Kazakhstan was dealing with Borat, and I knew we mustn\'t be as miserable and resentful as they were in their reactions,\" he said, passionately hitting the top of the table. The ambassador appeared on the show, congratulated Colbert on his winning the vote, gave him a Hungarian passport, but also warned him: to have a bridge named after him, he must be dead—though this could be arranged.

Eventually the bridge was named Megyeri because it connects the Bekasmegyer and Kaposztasmegyer districts of Budapest.

\"Two million Americans saw it, and maybe they were happy that this country is an ally, Hungary was able to react with humor and can laugh at itself,\" Simonyi said. He appeared on the show one more time, presenting the host with a guitar.

Before Colbert encouraged his audience to take part in the bridge vote, his show was unknown in Hungary. The country\'s media soon picked up the story, and many people starting watching Colbert online. (Colbert\'s network, Comedy Central, has since launched a Hungarian version that carries a compilation version of his show with subtitles.) Not everyone got the joke, though, and about half of the comments posted about the show were angry, saying the bridge campaign made Hungary look ridiculous. But the affair won Colbert many fans in Hungary, loyal viewers who watch the most recent episodes online and still call the new bridge by his name.


Simonyi left his post in Washington in the summer of 2007 and last November was appointed board chairman of the studio named after the Hungarian-born director and producer Alexander Korda. \"Hungary has made an incredible impact on the history of film, and building on that we\'ll create a flagship that will help the whole Hungarian film industry. Of course, it\'s also a business that needs to make money, but I want this to be a win-win situation for everyone,\" he said. \"And, as a Hungarian, I also want it to be our messenger in the world.\"

But the chairman of Korda Studios also wants the studio to bring America to Hungary, not only the other way around. \"It would be nice to introduce the American culture of ambition here, too, because the main problem with Hungary is a lack of ambition,\" he said. \"This is one of our aims, and this is why I said yes when I was asked to take this job: I think we have to provide a link with the United States on as many channels as possible.\"

The former ambassador thinks that if his country were ambitious enough, it would have made better use of the bridge-voting affair. \"People in Hungary didn\'t understand how good it would have been to somehow get \'Colbert\' into the name of the bridge,\" Simonyi said. \"That would have been a real attraction. The world will only pay attention to what it finds interesting.\"

\"However, the country isn\'t ready for that yet. The most [important] thing is that the Google and YouTube community loved [my appearance onThe Colbert Report], and I\'m satisfied, because they are the ones who will shake this country out of its daydreaming and inward-looking mentality,\" he said.
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