Lost in Translation

The March 11 bombing in Madrid revealed the limits of the politics of OC bazillionaire George Argyros

How out of touch was Argyros with the people of Spain? Near the end of the interview, asked about the upcoming election in which Spaniards would sweep away Aznar, he maintained that Spain would continue to support the United States in the War on Terror even if Aznar lost. Why? Because "the major part of [the heritage of the United States] is from Spain. We have more than 40 million Spanish speakers in the United States."

*** According to the u.s. spanish embassy homepage (www.embusa.es), an ideal ambassador in Spain will "have an active public diplomacy program, provide consular services to American citizens and visa services to citizens of other countries who wish to visit or who qualify to immigrate to the United States, and promote trade and investment between our two countries." "Public diplomacy" means what it says: reaching out to everyday Spaniards. But Argyros's brief tenure has been seigneurial in quality—lordly, arrogant, condescending.

On Sept. 26, 2002, he wrote a letter to the Madrid-based liberal daily El Mundo criticizing reporter Raúl del Pozo for his column lamenting the disappointing career arc of U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Holding up Rice as a symbol of African American success, del Pozo noted that she had "arrived with her race from the cotton fields and latrines to the White House, but not to serve peace but to serve oil."

The lyricism was lost on Argyros. He attacked del Pozo as a racist, claimed he used "degrading images" (Argyros cited no examples), and chastised the writer for exhibiting "virulent hostility" toward American foreign policy. Del Pozo responded the next day with a blistering rebuttal. He asked Argyros to reflect on his Greek heritage and "remember [that] the Greeks, who invented democracy, said that it's stupid to win without convincing, that those who eat in a palace outrage with their arrogance, and that war also depends on laws."

*** But the argyros-del pozo spat paled next to Breakfastgate. In early February 2003, Argyros invited the leaders of all of Spain's opposition political parties to the U.S. embassy for a breakfast. The topic: why they should support invading Iraq. Argyros scheduled his salon for Feb. 6, the day after Colin Powell would present the United Nations with "evidence" that Saddam Hussein had developed and was ready to use weapons of mass destruction. Feb. 6 was also a day before Aznar was to make his argument before the Spanish Parliament for his country's role in any Iraq invasion.

But the politicians refused to attend, not because they were opposed to meeting Argyros but because they were offended at his insistence that the meeting take place at the U.S. Embassy. One political leader seethed that accepting Argyros' invitation would transfer "Spanish sovereignty to the American embassy."

The Spanish press ridiculed Argyros for the incident. El Mundo gave him the equivalent of a thumbs down in its "What's Hot/What's Not" weekly feature, while El País columnist Ernesto Ekaizer speculated sarcastically that Argyros' choice of date was no mere coincidence. Linked to the Powell and Aznar appearances, the breakfast was part of a strategy "in the perfect mind of Bush" to win over Spaniards.

Argyros did eventually get his breakfast—a week later in the chambers of Spain's Parliament. There, Spain's opposition leaders respectfully listened as Argyros laid out his stance. The breakfast lasted over two hours because, as one newspaper noted, Argyros "doesn't speak Spanish, even though he's been in Madrid for over a year."

Once Argyros finished, those present grilled him in a way that would have astonished their docile American counterparts. The Spanish were merciless. Fatima Aburto, a Socialist senator, reminded Argyros that John F. Kennedy once "promised that the United States would never initiate a war." Argyros "forcefully" justified his response, according to El Mundo; we might guess that he was bristling at Old Europe.

"I don't know how all of you have been able to withstand 30 years of terrorism in Spain," he said. "For us Americans, seeing the image of the Twin Towers attack has sufficed [to provide the U.S. with a reason] to pursue terrorists by any means at any point on the planet."

Before Aburto could respond, a bell rang signaling her time was up. Argyros would take no more comments.

*** President George W. Bush knew exactly what he was doing when the White House nominated Argyros for the position of ambassador to Spain in early 2001. Bush didn't care that Argyros had no diplomatic experience and spoke no Spanish, nor that the Newport Beach billionaire was under investigation by the Orange County District Attorney at the time on charges that Argyros' Arnel Management Co., his apartment company, systematically defrauded immigrant tenants. (Under mysterious circumstances, the DA later removed Argyros' name from the government's civil suit; Arnel paid a $2 million fine and admitted no guilt.)

In Argyros, Bush saw a valued lieutenant who collected $30 million as head of the California Republican Party's fundraising arm during the 2000 presidential campaign, a famously venal businessman who doesn't take no for an answer from anyone—even a nation of 41.5 million like Spain.

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