Lost in Translation

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

"George Argyros is a leader in his community who has been active in numerous civic, cultural, and philanthropic organizations," read the official April 25, 2001, presidential statement publicizing Argyros' nomination. "His experience in trade policy and foreign affairs, as well as his interest in education and the arts, will make him an excellent Ambassador to Spain."

At his Senate confirmation hearing, Argyros was appropriately bland. Sept. 11 was still months away, and the nominee's top agenda items were a roll call of dull: he would "enhance our already rich relationship with Spain in the fields of culture and education" and "promote American commercial interests and work to expand our market opportunities in Spain." Argyros also praised Aznar's "pledge of all possible support for our effort to fight terrorism." It was an acknowledgement of Spain's 30-year fight with the Basque separatist movement ETA, but it would prove prescient.

The Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register were aflutter with the possibility that the White House would consider an Orange County resident for such a prestigious position, and glossed over Argyros' many problems. Not so the Spanish press. The Spanish version of the Associated Press, EFE, noted his collaboration "with G. Bush père . . . as advisor for commercial matters," but also his controversial stint as chairman of OC-based Apria Healthcare Group, which Securities and Exchange Commission investigators allege filed an astonishing 900,000 false billing claims with a federal medical program. (Apria has denied any wrongdoing, calling the claims "errors." Argyros, for his part, left the company in 1998, shortly after a whistleblower alerted the feds about the billings.)

Such concerns didn't faze the Senate committee reviewing Argyros' record. When the DA's office removed Argyros' name from the civil suit against Arnel, Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat, displayed the nerve for which Democrats are rightly infamous: she allowed the nomination to move through without serious question.

By the time Argyros was formally appointed in late November 2001, the Bush White House had found a new purpose for the ambassador, one that had little to do with cultural exchanges and expanded markets.

*** Despite Spain's importance in Bush's Iraq coalition—only the UK is more senior—the U.S. press has barely acknowledged Argyros. Last summer, Orange County Business Journal reporter Chris Cziborr checked in with the ambassador. The resulting story, "Argyros Blending Well With Madrid's Elite," was terribly one-sided, based as it was on the observations of just one person—not Argyros himself but a loyal staffer named Michael Liikala, a former Republican activist who works directly for Argyros as counselor for commercial affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. But it was more right than perhaps Cziborr could know, reporting that Argyros had "taken to Spain's elite corporate and political circles like a natural."

"[Argyros] certainly arrived at a time when the importance of Spain in the geopolitical situation moved up very quickly because of terrorism and the like," Liikala told Cziborr. "Spain's support has been critical in offsetting some of the other countries who weren't offering support on Iraq. We didn't want the continent of Europe opposing the war. Spain was key in that. The Germans and the French broke down."

By then, Spain's role as the United States' trusted ally and Argyros' position as a favored confidant of Bush was established. Shortly after he endured Breakfastgate, Argyros hosted Florida governor Jeb Bush, who sought to expand Florida business in Spain. In 2003 alone, Argyros hosted visits by Environmental Protection Agency director Christine Todd Whitman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development's Mel Martínez, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, and Secretary of Homeland Defense Tom Ridge, all seeking to advance opportunities for their respective departments.

But the Spanish press and activists were also launching their own counter-offensive against the U.S.-Spanish relationship. Protesters began appearing at Argyros appearances. In March of last year, activists tried to reward Argyros with a fighting cock when he presided over a business conference; they were thwarted by security. On July 8 over 1,000 protestors staged a vigil outside the U.S. embassy in Madrid in memory of José Couso, a Spanish journalist killed in Baghdad by American troops. Participants turned in 50,000 letters demanding that Argyros ask the American military to investigate Couso's death. In a letter they attempted to present to Argyros, Couso's family mocked Argyros, asking him to award their handmade medals to the American soldiers charged with killing Couso—and two honorary diplomas to Aznar and foreign secretary Ana Palacio for having "acted like blind servants with what the United States has ordered" in the Iraq war. According to family members (on their website, www.josecouso.info) Argyros "considered the medals and diplomas insults and [said] that he would ensure that nothing would be turned over to the embassy."

***

On March 12, one day after the Madrid attack, Argyros was, at last, clearly in touch with the Spanish people. As rescuers continued scouring the wreckage in central Madrid, over two million people marched through the Spanish capital in a downpour. They were joined across the country by some nine million more. Everyone who was anyone in Spain was in the streets—Aznar, the leaders of all Spanish political parties, Crown Prince Phillip, the owner of the Real Madrid soccer squad, even acclaimed movie director Pedro Almodóvar. Also marching in the rain, according to El País, was the corpulent U.S. ambassador. The newspaper doesn't mention how far Argyros walked or whether he spoke.

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