Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books about familial discoveries and coverage of Hillary Clinton

Enemies of the People:
My Family’s Journey to America

By Kati Marton
Simon & Schuster
272 pages, $26

For Kati Marton’s parents, living well seemed the best defense—while it lasted. Both of Jewish descent, the Martons managed to survive Adolf Eichmann’s brutal roundup of Hungarian Jews during the waning years of World War II. After the war, they protected themselves from the communist regime by flaunting their visibility, even to the point of driving an ostentatious white Studebaker convertible. Endre Marton became the Associated Press correspondent in Budapest; with a little help from her husband, Ilona Marton served in a similar capacity for United Press. They cultivated their ties with the American legation, availed themselves of the extra glamour and privilege these ties earned them, and persistently reported the news, good and bad.

Not surprisingly, given this connection to the West, they and their two daughters (Kati was the younger) came under scrutiny by the AVO, the secret police. But only in 2007-2008, when the massive AVO files on her family were released to her, did Kati learn how intense this scrutiny had been, or how little she really knew about her parents’ travails. They all had been watched relentlessly. A mole in the American legation filed regular reports, as did the girls’ French nanny. Endre was the chief target, as he continued to produce bold, even reckless stories for the AP. When he helped himself to a government budget document without authorization, the trap closed, and he went to prison, as did Ilona. The daughters were passed to a household of strangers.

A few years before, there might have been a devastating end to the story. But Eastern Europe was going through its post-Stalin softening, and to bolster relations with the West both Martons were released. This allowed Endre to cover the memorable Hungarian revolution in the fall of 1956—the achievement for which he is remembered in the AP’s official history, Breaking News. Which isn’t to say that Endre’s employer was always in his corner: when Kati, who grew up to be an eminent journalist herself, looked into the AP archives as part of her research, she was dismayed by the coldness with which the organization regarded her family’s troubles. The general manager, Frank Starzel, was lukewarm, resisting the idea that the Martons might come to the United States on the vague grounds that Endre might be “a problem.”

In the end, the family got the State Department to sponsor its move to America. Endre was able to enter a new career as the AP’s diplomatic correspondent, much respected by colleagues. But even in Washington the surveillance did not end; it actually multiplied, since the Martons were tracked by both the AVO and then the FBI, which must have suspected that they were communist plants. Ultimately, both American and Hungarian files were closed for lack of substance. The elder Martons went on to lead long lives, having encountered and survived many of the perils of the mid-twentieth century. Their daughter, who has come to know them much better, has narrated their existence in nuanced and vivid terms. “How ironic,” she observes, “to owe to one of the most brutal twentieth-century institutions . . . a priceless window into my parents.”

Hillary Clinton’s Race for the White House:
Gender Politics and the Media on the Campaign Trail

By Regina G. Lawrence and Melody Rose
Lynne Reinner Publishers
277 pages, $26.50

The scholars who produced this analysis of the 2008 campaign are a picture of ambivalence: Rose, a political scientist, is a fervent Clinton supporter, while Lawrence, a specialist in political communication, is considerably more skeptical about the current Secretary of State. Yet they emerge from their investigations in a state of complex agreement. And oddly enough, given their title, they don’t pin Clinton’s defeat on gender and the media. Instead they give greater weight to other circumstances: the peculiarities of Democratic Party primary rules, strategic failures by the Clinton campaign, the unexpected rise of an unexpectedly attractive rival candidate.

To the extent that they credit the media at all, they pay less heed to sexism and more to the concentrated, almost crazed efforts by commentators and pundits to bring the primary campaign to an end by forcing Clinton’s withdrawal. There were of course traces of sexism in the mainstream coverage, most notably by a few offenders on MSNBC. But the more important phenomenon Lawrence and Rose uncover is the extent to which the uncivil, even uncouth discourse on the Internet and blogosphere began to pollute the more decorous media, suggesting that in future campaigns, the ruffians may end up running the entire show.

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.