It was our regular coffee house meeting in Budapest, this time over lunch at Angelika. Beyond our table, the Danube flowed on uncomplainingly. Around that table sat yours truly, the retired professor of urban studies; Joe, the Hungarian-American psychologist on a month-long return to his birthplace; and the three Hungarians--Gabor the sociologist/social worker, Janos the writer/activist, and Andras the prolific political scientist. The group wouldn't meet again until January, so the question seemed obvious: Who will be President of the United States when next we meet?
Each was asked for a name, with an elaboration to follow. When the votes were counted, the results showed: Two for Trump, one for Clinton, one for Ryan, and one for Biden.
Why? How? Gabor began: "It's got to be Hillary--with all her contacts and experience. She was, for example, an excellent Minister for Foreign Affairs. And besides, how can anybody take Trump seriously?--he's a comic figure of a proto-fascist in a reality TV show that will bore everyone after a few weeks. Still, he seems to be supported by millions of Americans! I've got enough faith, however, in the good sense of most Americans to elect somebody who's up to the job--and in any case it's more than time for a woman to be elected President."
Janos jumped right in: "Not so fast, Gabor. Trump is showing every day that he can appeal to the same chauvinistic and nationalistic motives that make Viktor Orban unbeatable here in Hungary. He's a master at convincing people that the only thing they have to fear are people different than them--and America is full of different people. And there's always the rest of the world to reject, starting with Mexico and moving all the way to China. Anyway this is a world trend these days--'There goes your enemy.' That rhetoric can get a lot of people killed. We've seen that many times in history. The smell of the 1930s is in the air."
Andras explained his selection: "Trump has pulled even in some of the polls, and Hillary is proving to be a really dismal candidate. She forgets where she is and what she's doing; she really screwed up on those State Department emails; and she just doesn't seem to be able to connect to her audiences.... I can see Trump holding his first Summit with Putin right here in Budapest next Spring, with our great leader beaming up at both of them as their host."
Joe was uncharacteristically quiet, so I jumped in: "I agree with you all--Trump is a bad actor and Hillary's proving to be a real drag. But the Republicans have decided, and Sanders is not appealing to very many near the political middle with his one-note song.
"On the polls, remember that what decides the presidential election are the outcomes in three states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. And the polls have been showing Hillary with a steady lead in each of these decisive locations.
"And there are other factors to contemplate. For one, the Libertarian Party is now presenting a credible ticket, one that might win three or four states and throw the election into the House. But more likely than that seems to me the possibility of an open convention this summer--not for the Republicans but rather for the Democrats."
My friends leaned forward over their main course to listen as I continued: "I see the possibility that enough super-delegates will come to the view by convention time in August that neither Hillary nor Bernie has what it takes to beat Trump. They will look for a third candidate, and he will be there: the sitting Vice-President--Joe Biden. By the fifth or sixth ballot, Hillary will settle for the second spot, Bernie for some language in the platform, and Biden will sail to victory in November. His debates with Trump will be classic victories for him."
It was now time to hear from Joe, and as the main course was being cleared, he explained his choice: "I predict that Trump will be elected and inaugurated but that both he and his vice president will serve for a very short time only and the then Speaker of the House will become president." He elaborated further, but authoral discretion suggests that his allusions to the CIA and related eventualities, though familiar to present readers who have viewed "House of Cards" or "Marseille", might prudently be omitted from the present draft.
Well, the discussion became quite intense at this point, and we decided to calm it with a bit of good tokay wine: I'm abashed to admit it was Dereszla. The bottle was a bit too much for the five of us, and we offered a glass to the two men seated at nearby tables, each of whom had been scribbling busily into leather notebooks while nursing their long coffees, both seeming to step from the annals of Hungarian literary genius. The distinguished figure with the well-trimmed beard who had been sitting at the table to my left accepted the golden glass and spoke quietly to us all: "Interesting discussion, gentlemen, pardon my overhearing most of it. I wonder if you have ever considered the possibility that Ronald Reagan might return to his country in this, the moment of his nation's greatest need?" He returned to his scribbling into his venerable black notebook, withdrawing completely from any response.
The younger fellow at the table to the right was quite thin and rather disheveled in appearance. He nodded in appreciation for the wine and stared back at the page on which he had been writing and began to read, as if what he had just written encompassed his entire being:
...I want to work. This was strife enough,
having to own up to the past.
He suddenly looked up, and cast his gaze onto the flowing waters of the Danube beyond:
(This river's) gentle waves
embrace past, present, and tomorrow.
The battles our ancestors had to fight
resolve into peace in remembrance's light.
It is time to work together at last
on our affairs in common--no small task.
Our eyes blurred, and when we looked again, each table was empty, no sign remaining of the wraiths of Mor Jokai or Attila Joszef. It was a busy day in May, and time had flown by; we'd need to find our coffee elsewhere. For now we headed out, each alone with our thoughts and visions, into the Spring sunshine of the Budapest day, convinced that the world would be a different place when we next met in January. And even that it was already a different place than when we came together just two hours before.