Cohn, producer of "My Old Haunts," recounts his experiences
on the trail to interview Vadim Tudor, an ultranationalist demagogue
who wants to be Romania's next president.
In the hot summer months, Bucharest's outdoor caf╚s grow lively
with young people discussing politics and culture over cold
bottles of Tuborg and cigarette after cigarette. I sat one night
on a popular rooftop terrace with three thirtyish Romanian intellectuals,
a straight woman and two gay men who were charming, multilingual
and funny. When the conversation turned to Romania's inflammatory
ultra-nationalist opposition leader, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, I
heard a sentiment I had already come across in Romania. "I can't
stand him," said the young woman, a writer, in quick, singsong
English. "But the other day, I was watching TV and he was making
a speech, and I sat there fascinated for 20 minutes."
These cosmopolitan young Romanians admitted, with a touch of
embarrassment, that Tudor speaks to them in a way that is direct
and even honest -- at least to the extent that he says what
others don't have the courage to. His right-wing oratory, the
young woman said, moves Romanians like manele does. Manele
is the wildly popular Gypsy pop music that combines sentimental
melodies and aching lyrics with irrepressible rhythms.
Senator Tudor is the son of uprooted peasants who were evangelical
Christians in a country dominated by the Orthodox Church. He
was born in 1949 in a proletarian neighborhood on the outskirts
of Bucharest. Tudor was a talented writer, romantic and passionate,
with a realist's eye for where his bread was buttered. Under
the Communist regime, he became a member of the state press
corps, where he shone as a kind of court poet, writing odes
to the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, along with florid verses
on subjects like love, the nation and motherhood.
intelligence figures have asserted that Tudor was also an eager
informant for the Securitate, Ceausescu's feared secret
police. But in that regard Tudor would be far from unique: The
Securitate was one of the Soviet Bloc's nosiest domestic intelligence
agencies, and many of Romania's current leaders informed at
one time or another for the paranoid dictatorship. Still, Tudor's
critics say that he was worse than most and that his Romania
Mare Party has become a dumping ground of unreconstructed
former Securitate agents too tainted to fit in with Romania's
current intelligence service or army. (Romania Mare, or Greater
Romania, refers to Romania in the period between the world wars,
when the nation included large parts of what are now Moldova,
Bulgaria and Ukraine. In effect, the name constitutes a call
to territorial battle with Romania's neighbors.)
the 1989 revolution that brought down Ceausescu, Tudor has stayed in
the public eye, as publisher of the invective-filled Romania
Mare newspaper and, since 1992, as a senator. He is a familiar
figure on Romanian television and in the news. Now, the 2004
elections are approaching, and he longs for the presidency.
presidential ambitions are improbable, but not unthinkable. In 2000,
two years before the extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the
world by forcing a run-off in the French presidential elections. Tudor accomplished the same feat on a smaller stage. He garnered
one-third of the vote in a second-place finish to emerge as
an undeniable force in Romanian politics. The man who beat Tudor,
current president Ion Iliescu, commented pointedly on Tudor's
potential. "The phantoms of the totalitarian past can appear
anytime from poverty," he said. In March 2002, Tudor was chosen
as the presidential candidate of choice by 17.0 percent of respondents
in a national poll, with 43.0 percent preferring current prime
minister Adrian Nastase, a member of the ruling Social Democratic
Party. Four months later, 36.9 percent of those polled said
Tudor's Romania Mare party was "capable of directing the country."
will never be elected president," says Sorin Antohi, a professor
of history at Central European University who has closely followed
Tudor's career. "Romanians may show their discontent every four
years and vote in large numbers for Tudor, but most Tudor voters
do not actually see him in power. Romans used to say that populations
need bread and circus. Tudor only provides the latter, and Romanians
But even if Antohi is right, and Tudor merely benefited from
a large protest vote in the last election, Romanians still have
a lot to be unhappy about. Unemployment has risen from 8.2 percent
in 2001 to 13.3 percent in March 2002, with the average monthly
salary stuck around $100. Romania desperately wants to become
part of the European Union, but will likely be humiliated by
being accepted long after Hungary, its regional rival.
Street crime and high-level corruption continue to test the
nerves of Romania's honest citizens. These are all issues that
Tudor exploits masterfully.
Tudor and Le Pen are often compared, and for good reason. Both
politicians are loose cannons, capable of blunt anti-Semitic,
racist and homophobic utterances that make moderates in their
parties cringe; and both are populists, who benefit from widespread
feelings of disaffection around racial and ethnic tension, unequally
distributed economic opportunity, and perceived corruption in
Le Pen, Tudor often seems willing to say anything to be provocative.
He has advocated imposing martial law in Romania, offering himself
as leader for the amount of time necessary to eliminate "the
impostors and traitors." In speeches and articles, he has inveighed
against Romania's large Hungarian minority, at one point even
offering money to anyone who burned a Hungarian flag. He has
suggested rounding Gypsies up and placing them in prisons and
concentration camps to solve the problem of street crime. He
has downplayed Romania's role in the Holocaust. He is a leading
force behind the rehabilitation of the image of Marshall Ion
Antonescu, the World War II-era fascist dictator whose troops
carried out mass killings and deportations of Romanian Jews.
And one of his favorite targets is Michael Guest, the openly
Gay American ambassador.
But what interested me most about Tudor was the oddly ambivalent
attitude Romanians I spoke with displayed toward him. "Vadim,"
as virtually all Romanians call Tudor (as if he were a favorite,
somewhat zany uncle), is not nearly the polarizing figure that
Le Pen is in France. People seem to like him, even the ones
who should despise him.
I went to the headquarters of the Greater Romania Party to ask
for an interview.
path to Tudor went through his communications director, Radu
"Peter" Toma, who agreed to meet me at an outdoor caf╚
on the lively pedestrian promenade in downtown Brasov, a beautiful
medieval city in the heart of Transylvania.
this guy really keeps my hands full," said the tall, broad-shouldered
Toma, 60, in the idiomatic English he learned after defecting
to the United States in the 1970s. "He's so hyper. If he should
say 10 words, he says a hundred. What can I do about a guy who
sits inside a tent in Libya with Colonel Qadaffi and says 'You
and I are fighting the same thing -- we're both fighting Zionism'?"
Handling Tudor must indeed be difficult work. In the 2000 campaign,
Tudor made the famous declaration that Romania "can only be
ruled with a machine gun." Toma subsequently spent a good deal
of time explaining that his boss meant the machine gun should
remain slung on the shoulder as a deterrent.
But I soon realized that Toma was, himself, not the most circumspect
of press aides. In response to my observation that all Romanians
seem to refer to Tudor as "Vadim," Tudor nodded, saying that
in politics it was useful to be known by a single, bisyllabic
name. Hitler and Stalin, he noted, both changed their names.
At one point, I asked Toma to compare Tudor's foreign policy
with that of the current president, Ion Iliescu. "Iliescu is
a much more responsible politician," Toma answered.
Clearly, Toma's press strategy was to paint an image of a reckless
political force teetering on the edge of power in the center
of Europe. The Western media was missing the boat on the story,
Toma said. "In 1941, they knew about Pearl Harbor before it
happened," Toma admonished me. "Don't miss Pearl Harbor, Jay."
No matter how enticed I was with a politician who was clearly
capable of saying anything on camera and whose own press
secretary equates him with Hitler, Stalin and Pearl Harbor,
I did have reservations about interviewing him. Surely Tudor
would capitalize on the attention from our correspondent, Andrei
Codrescu, who is well-known in Romania. I squirmed at the idea
of giving Tudor further opportunity to present himself as an
important politician courted by American media. But for better
or worse, Tudor is the voice of protest in Romanian politics.
We set a date: Tudor would meet with our FRONTLINE/World
crew to show us his country.
Tudor wanted to meet us in Transylvania near Bran Castle, a
tourist attraction promoted as Dracula's fortress. It might
seem odd that Tudor would choose to bring us to this castle.
But Romania loves a strong leader, and Vlad Tepes, the 15th-century
prince better known as Dracula, was a real law-and-order man.
Despite his gruesome habit of impaling his enemies on long stakes,
Vlad is fondly remembered in Romania today for his crime-fighting
and his promotion of Romania's independence from hostile neighbors.
Tudor, who longs to be the country's next strongman, doesn't
resist being compared with the man the outside world knows better
as a maniacal, bloodthirsty fiend.
often appears in public in an all-white suit -- he says white
is the color of purity and the color of Jesus' vestments. With
his big frame, chunky face, trademark enormous sunglasses and
disheveled shock of hair, Tudor looks more like Elvis than Jesus.
On the afternoon he met us, he was dressed in a pro-American
motif, greeting us in a red, white and blue U.S. World Cup Soccer
windbreaker and white Adidas sneakers with red and blue stripes.
We spent the day with Tudor, a superb and jovial host who presented
our crew with books of his translated poems and Dracula T-shirts.
He also attempted, elaborately, to disabuse us of any preconception
we might have that he disliked Jews. (The three of us from FRONTLINE/World
-- Andrei Codrescu, Marian Marvinsky and I -- are all Jewish.)
hope you don't believe I am an anti-Semite," he said, reaching
for Andrei's hand, "whatever Elie Weisel might have told you."
(Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Weisel had recently gone
to his hometown of Sighet to urge Romanians to face up to their
role in the decimation of European Jews, and Tudor had attacked
him in the press. )
Many of Tudor's disavowals of bigotry were of the "some-of-my-best-friends"
variety. He recited, for example, the names of two Jewish families
he feeds as part of his "Christian Supper" charity program.
"There is no Jewish problem in Romania," Tudor assured Andrei,
who responded that there were hardly any Jews left in Romania.
But Tudor maintained his warm congeniality, draping his arm
over Andrei's shoulder as they walked.
On the subject of Gypsies, or Roma,
who have been viciously persecuted in Romania and across Europe,
Tudor talked rather unconsciously out of both sides of his mouth.
"I have nothing against Gypsies," Tudor told us. Then, "They
haven't come to America yet, but they will if you let them."
Pressed on his solution to the so -called Gypsy problem, Tudor
said, "They say that I want to put them all in concentration
camps or that I want to kill them with machine guns. It's a
lie. Everyone knows I save dogs and birds on the lake. I feed
over 200 dogs a week."
Tudor is, in fact, fanatical about dogs, rescuing them by the
dozens. And he insists that these acts of charity preclude him
from being able to harbor any un-Christian feelings toward Romania's
minorities. In the chaotic outdoor bazaar in Bran, Tudor called
out to a Roma man, "Did you ever think I had a problem with
Gypsies?" "No, never," the man answered enthusiastically. Meanwhile,
Tudor and his entourage of aides and bodyguards made a point
of reminding their American guests to keep close tabs on their
Later, when we told Tudor of our interest in interviewing the
manele singing superstar known as Miracle Child, Tudor tried
to dissuade us. "You will give America the wrong impression
of Romania," he argued. "We are not only Gypsies. Why focus
on the ugly, the dirty?" Manele lyrics, he said, were just "words
written by retards."
have a big mouth," Tudor conceded. "But I am not violent. I
talk, and nobody gets hurt from my talking.
Andrei closed our interview by asking Tudor what his presidency
would look like. Whatever else, Tudor replied, the law would
be enforced. "I am not a dictator," he said, "but I believe
that Romania at this point needs an iron hand."
In Romania, that distinction has never been clear. But it might
not matter to Tudor's diehard supporters, who see him as the
only answer to Romania's troubles. "Nothing is right in Romania,"
a middle-aged man told us at the castle bazaar after he had
rushed up to shake Tudor's hand. "This country is an absolute