Honoring Dr. Robert R. King

Speech by László Hámos
Hungarian American Coalition Mikulás Dinner
Embassy of Hungary
December 5, 2008

For me, Dr. Robert R. King was a scholar of high esteem well before we ever met. If ever there was a case of serendipity – or fortunate, chance encounters between a person of knowledge and influence, and the human rights issues of concern to Hungarian-Americans – for the past four decades Dr. King somehow happened to be the perfect person in the right place at the best time.

From 1970-1977, he was Assistant Director of Research and Senior Analyst at Radio Free Europe in Munich, Germany. Directing analysis of foreign policy, domestic political developments, economic policies, and social issues of the communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, he worked alongside the Director, Károly András, whom (Zsolt Szekeres and) I had known since childhood. (Serendipity #1.)

Dr. King’s seminal work entitled Minorities Under Communism: Nationalities as a Source of Tension Among Balkan Communist States, was published in 1973 by Harvard University Press. This was during my senior year at the University of Pennsylvania, and it became a beloved textbook. Three years later, in 1976, when the Committee for Human Rights in Rumania was formed, we quoted liberally from this classic work in newspaper ads and Congressional testimony. The concise passage on the destruction by forced merger of the Bolyai University stands as the definitive statement by a Western academic on this outrage (an outrage remaining uncorrected to this day, I might add).

I still remember the joy a year later, in 1977, when our team in New York discovered, Bob, that you had won appointment as a White House Fellow, working on Soviet and East European Affairs under President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. (Serendipity #2.) As fate would have it, in April 1978 the Rumanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu would pay what was to become his last visit to Washington, DC, giving our guest of honor, Dr. King, the singular distinction to personally meet the infamous “Genius of the Carpathians,” the ruthless persecutor of 2.5 million Hungarians in Rumania. As busloads of Hungarian-Americans gathered for a mass demonstration in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, we took quiet, tremendous encouragement from the sure knowledge that inside, sitting right there…, across from Ceausescu…, advising President Carter…, was the foremost US expert on Ceausescu’s campaign of forced assimilation against Rumania’s national minorities. If we could not publicly do so at the time, let me now, three decades later, convey to you our heartfelt gratitude for your profound service, when and where it counted most, on behalf of the issue of greatest concern to Hungarian-Americans.

Hungarians are a notoriously pessimistic people, but the subsequent career path of Bob King was enough to defeat the worst among us. Because (Serendipity #3.), as recently explained by Tomicah Tilleman-Dick, a chance friendship with his father in Boulder, Colorado, led in 1983 to Bob King’s introduction to and appointment by the second-term Congressman Tom Lantos from California. Dr. King went on, for the next 25 years, to serve as Chief of Staff and principal alter ego to the single American legislator of greatest positive impact in championing the rights of Hungarian minorities and other oppressed peoples around the world.

As many of you know, the substantive work of Congress – drafting of legislation, position papers, talking points, floor statements, preparation of hearings – is carried out behind the scenes by key staff members, the unsung heroes. Bob King quickly rose to be the best and brightest in this profession, recognized through his advancement as Staff Director of various House Foreign Affairs Subcommittees. With the elevation in 2007 of Tom Lantos as full committee Chair (tragically cut short by Tom’s passing away a year ago), Bob King assumed responsibility over a staff of 86 with an annual budget of over $8 million.

For anyone who has crossed paths with Bob King, he exhibits three striking qualities: knowledge, intelligence and modesty. Whenever we came to him trying to explain the intricacies of a particular human rights abuse, a few words from this man revealed that he knew at least as much, if not more than we did. His intelligence is manifest in the ability to quickly grasp the core, the jugular, and to express in a single phrase what it takes others reams to explain. Most remarkable is his quiet, unassuming and reassuring calm amid any storm or controversy. He embodies the adage, “You can achieve great things in Washington if you are willing to work without taking credit for your work.”

Typical of his modesty was his behavior at the moving Tribute to Tom Lantos in the Capitol last year. The UN Secretary General, the House Speaker, Elie Wiesel, the singer Bono, the Secretary of State, Senator Joe Biden and other luminaries spoke lovingly of Tom’s contributions to the world. What moved me perhaps more than anything was Bob King, the man in professional contact with Tom for a quarter-century, standing behind a statue in the back, quietly ruminating, introspective, mourning the loss.

If he could be with us, Tom Lantos, I’m sure, would extol a fourth virtue in Bob King, his undying loyalty through thick and thin, which I observed him to exhibit toward Tom and Annette with never the slightest hesitation.

An understanding of Bob King is not possible without appreciating the devotion, expertise and boundless patience of Kay King, his wife and professional colleague for many years in the Lantos office and recently on the staff of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The word “patience” in the prior sentence, Kay, refers to your serene fortitude in navigating the shoals of aggressive conduct by some (who will remain unnamed) in our community to nevertheless organize the magnificent unveiling of the bust of Lajos Kossuth in the Capitol Rotunda on March 15, 1990.

Thank you to you both, unsung heroes, for your many years of dedicated service. Thank you for drafting and passing by unanimous vote in 2005 the Congressional Resolution to accelerate the return of 2,140 properties confiscated from Hungarian churches in Rumania. Thank you for the repeated protest letters by the Foreign Affairs Committee to Serbian Prime Minister, expressing outrage at the senseless beating of schoolchildren merely for speaking Hungarian. Thank you for enabling Congressman Lantos, just last year, to be the first to raise a powerful protest against the anti-minority excesses of Slovakia’s ultra-nationalist governing coalition.

I’m not sure, really, why you are moving on, Bob, and I wish it were not so. But wherever life takes you, if the past 40 years of serendipity is any guide, we have good reason to hope and trust that your fine service of the good cause of human rights will again come into fortunate contact with Hungarian aspirations. So be it.

In this spirit, let me call upon Max Teleki, as we bestow upon you a small token of our appreciation.

Recent Posts