The Year In Diplomatic Buffoonery, Argyros-Style

Illustration by Bob AulWhen Orange County businessman George Argyros became ambassador to Spain in late 2001, OC Weekly managing editor Matt Coker wrote an open letter to then-Spanish President José María Aznar, expressing his hope “that by the time [Argyros] has left Madrid, he will not have rekindled the Spanish-American War” (“Lo Siento,” Dec. 7, 2001).

It was funny, but as it turned out, not that funny. Sure, galleons aren't hurtling across the Atlantic—yet—but 2004 marked the worst deterioration of Spanish-American ties since Julio Iglesias' mid-1980s world tour. And it's fair to blame all of it on Orange County's fattest landlord.

It wasn't only that Argyros didn't speak—and wouldn't learn—Spanish, a form of lingual retardation ridiculed frequently in the Madrid press over his three-year stay. Nor was it his backdoor deal with Aznar to secure Spain's involvement in the Iraq invasion, a move opposed by more than 90 percent of Spaniards. Nor even was it Argyros' reaction after the March 11 Madrid bombings that killed 191 madrileños: with all of Spain in mourning, he issued a press release praising Spain's participation in the war in Iraq. It wasn't just bad timing. It was boneheaded, cold-hearted and crass. It was like interrupting an American soldier's funeral with a Halliburton commercial. Smart historians will note Argyros' supporting role in the collapse of Aznar's government mere days later.

All that was bad. But what ultimately damaged America's reputation in Spain was what Coker foresaw all those years ago: Argyros' arrogance, his bumbling, his buffoonery. In short, Argyros being Argyros, it all came to a boorish gestalt in October.

During the summer, Spanish President José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero—the man who beat Aznar's handpicked successor in March—delivered on his campaign promise to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. Spaniards greeted the move with relief. But it infuriated Argyros, who had campaigned for his ambassadorship on two points: his ability to raise $30 million for George W. Bush in 2000, and his promise to deliver and keep Spain in Bush's mediocre Coalition of the Willing.

In Orange County, we know Argyros from his handling of the campaign to turn El Toro into an international airport and his role as the evilest landlord since the guy who handled the Indians' escrow. We expected him to react with vengeance, but we didn't expect him to choose Oct. 12 as his day of divine retribution. That's Spanish National Day, Spain's Fourth of July, if you will, a holiday commemorating the country's reunification after driving out the Moors in 1492 and Christopher Columbus' discovery of America.

In Madrid, the National Day parade is the highlight of the embassy season; the attendance of all foreign diplomats and ambassadors in Spain is virtually mandatory. There was one notable absence this year: Argyros.

The ambassador's initial explanation was that he could not return in time from a hunting trip with James Baker. When Spanish officials didn't buy it, Argyros did something rare: he told the truth. He told the Spanish news agency Europa Press that he ditched the parade as a kind of payback: seems that a year before, Argyros said, at that same parade, Zapatero didn't stand when the American flag passed the reviewing stand.

All of Spain paused over their paella, set aside their pitchers of sangría and howled. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said Argyros' snub “didn't meet the norms of diplomatic courtesy.” Spain's premier daily, El País, elegantly called his explanation “inelegant.” Even the moderate El Mundo described Argyros' decision as a “hostile gesture.”

By then, Argyros had announced he would resign after the U.S. election. But the damage was already done. Bush requested a November meeting with Spain's king in Crawford, Texas, to patch things up, and Argyros returned to Orange County, where he awaits a spring appearance by Aznar at UC Irvine—the former president's second OC appearance in about a year. Orange County is about the only place that would welcome such an unwanted and disgraced man. And George Argyros is glad to be home.

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