WASHINGTON — ARPAD GONCZ looks like a grandfather who is a soft touch for pocket change. Most of his adult life he has earned a living as a literary translator and writer. For the last two weeks, he has been president of Hungary. ``This gives meaning to all my life,'' says President Goncz. ``There is an incredible and emotionally heavy burden on my shoulders.''
Things have happened so fast he does not yet know everything a president should. He is still hazy on balance of payments. Exchange rates elude him. He has an excuse: During his brief administration he has hardly been in Hungary. Five days have been spent in the US; three others were in the company of the Princess of Wales. ``The issues we discussed weren't exactly economic,'' he says.
But the author of the play ``Magyar Medea'' and ``Sarusok,'' a novel about railway workers, has a knack for phrases, which should serve him well in his new career as a head of state. Asked if communism is gone from Hungary, he says its demise is irreversible. ``We have crossed the river,'' he says, speaking through a translator. Goncz and Hungary are the edge of unknown territory.
President Goncz is in Washington to ask for help. Not more direct government aid, but for assistance in getting private American cash to set up small businesses in his country.
He wants the US to urge the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to go easy on his country while it struggles to get its economy back on its feet. He wants a Hungarian consulate opened on the US West Coast, the better to attract fabled Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
He wants Bush to urge the Soviets to keep pulling their troops out of Eastern Europe. It is true, he says, that Hungary wants to leave the Warsaw Pact, though it will be a complicated business to quit an alliance that is held together with economic as well as military ties. ``Neutrality has always been there in the souls of every Hungarian,'' he says.
Actually, Goncz is only the interim president. A member of the new Hungarian Parliament, he was picked for head of state as part of a political compromise between his party, the Free Democrats, and the dominant Hungarian Democratic Forum. When Parliament picks a full-term president later this year to team with Prime Minister Jozsef Antall, there is a good chance Goncz will win.
``As the former head of the association of Hungarian writers, I can distance myself from party considerations,'' he says.
He was born in Budapest in 1922. Active in anticommunist politics after World War II, he was kicked out of school and eventually went to jail in 1958. A general amnesty shortened his term of life imprisonment to five years.
Besides writing on his own he kept busy translating English literature into Hungarian. He was not finally elected chief of the writers' union until last winter, after change had swept his jailers from the stage.
Top figures from newly democratizing Eastern Europe are becoming a common sight in Washington. There can be three or four in town at any one time, threatening motorcade gridlock. Still, the small thrill of seeing them does not go away. In the US world of political compromise it is instructive to see people who won by never giving in.
Goncz says he was amazed to learn that Congress is considering a bill to support libraries in his country. US lawmakers are traveling to Hungary to teach legislative procedure.
``I am overwhelmed by all the signs of goodwill that I see here,'' says Goncz.