Just about the last person I expected to see at the palatial post-revolution residence of the Romanian ambassador the other night was the Washington lobbyist for the country's late and--I'd thought--pretty much unlamented dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. But there he was, as big as life, Edward J. van Kloberg III, sitting at the same table as Melanie Verveer, the chief of staff to Hillary Rodham Clinton; Betty Knight Scripps, a carefully chiseled, zillionaire Palm Beach party-giver and supporter of noble causes; and 16 other worthies.
Maybe he was even a little bigger than life. Being a baron can do that to you. At least the embassy identified him as a baron on the guest list, and he's got that vaguely adenoidal international accent--out of New York by way of New Jersey, with more recent pit stops at Palm Beach--that goes with a certain kind of title. (There was a baroness, too, Garnett Stackelberg. No connection. Better accent.)
In the 1980s, van Kloberg was a regular at the embassy in Washington. He engineered many public-relations coups for the regime generally regarded as the most repressive, after Albania, in Eastern Europe. His handler in those days was the deputy chief of mission and the senior Securitate officer, Dan Dumitru, who was not among the dinner guests last Thursday. A different handler now, I suppose.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The dinner was given by Ambassador Mircea Geoana and his wife Mihaela for Princess Margareta of Romania, the eldest daughter of King Michael, and her husband Radu Duda--rather an event in itself. It's only very recently that their former royals have been welcome on Romanian territory. The previous post-Communist government (under President Ion Iliescu), which the same ambassador also represented, didn't like them at all. And before that it was worse. The king was kicked out by the Communists in 1948 and his citizenship revoked. Forty-one yeas later, a revolution toppled the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, who were shot after a trial that lasted maybe an hour. (The king was a lot luckier.)
It took a little longer to get rid of the Communists, who favored a somewhat more enlightened approach after 1989 and liked to call themselves social democrats. They dressed better and seemed more like Gorbachev, but they betrayed their autocratic tendencies on a number of occasions--calling miners to Bucharest to beat up the opposition, later to remove the prime minister; maintaining an active secret police, that sort of thing. The old guys were finally defeated in the elections of last November.
Or most of them. Which brings us back to Baron van Kloberg, of whom it has been written, "He never met a dictator he couldn't hype." (His other clients include Mobutu Sese Seko, until very recently of Zaire; Saddam Hussein of Iraq; Samuel K. Doe of Liberia; the government of Burma; and so on--lobbyist to the loathed, in other words.) Just that morning he'd made the New York Times for making contributions to Mobutu admirer Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., that exceeded the legal limit.
As we filed into the dining room one of the guests told me that van Kloberg had arranged the princess's entire program--her brief visit to Washington, the dinner, etc. News to the princess, who lives mostly in Switzerland and is in this country to raise money for her foundation, which supports children, education, and cultural causes in Romania. News to me, too. Certainly he hadn't arranged the previous night's program. The royals came to my house. Just the three of us--Princess Margareta, Radu Duda, and me. I ordered in Chinese. Duck both nights, come to think of it.
After dinner and the ambassador's graceful speech acknowledging the vital role of the monarchy in the formation of modern Romania, I had a chance to speak to van Kloberg. No, he hadn't really arranged the princess's whole program. "The ambassador just asked me to bring a few people together." The ambassador, however, told the princess that van Kloberg was there because the journalist from the Washington Times at the last moment couldn't make it. Princess Margareta chided him: Van Kloberg's clients included Mobutu and Saddam Hussein, she said. "Yes, and Ceausescu, too," replied the ambassador.
Trying to sort this out, I called the ambassador the next morning, as he had instructed. I wanted to know: Is van Kloberg working for the new government? Why is a lobbyist for the Ceausescu regime dining at the embassy of the new, NATO-obsessed democracy anyway? What's going on here? But all I got was an answering machine. The ambassador didn't return my telephone call. He'd told me that in the afternoon he was leaving town for the weekend, and I couldn't wait. I had a plane to catch to Bucharest.
William McPherson is a novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has spent much of the past seven years exploring and writing about Romania.