The first triplets born in Zimbabwe after independence were American, much to Robert Mugabe’s irritation. Their father was the Hungarian refugee Donald Trump has finally got around to asking the Senate to confirm as his assistant secretary of state for Africa.
Tibor Nagy was an admin officer at the US embassy in Lusaka in 1980 when his wife, Eva Jane, a Texas farmer’s daughter who had been his college sweetheart, went into labour. She had a bad case of toxemia. The nearest hospital equipped to save her was in Harare.
Nagy, 69, spent almost all of his 25-year career as a foreign service officer in one or other African post, ending as ambassador in Ethiopia (during the Ethiopian-Eritrean war) and Guinea, before returning, in 2003, to his alma mater, Texas Tech University, to head its international affairs programme.
In 2010 he sat down to be interviewed for a candid oral history. That he cleared the transcript for public release suggests he was not expecting a return to African diplomacy.
As a child in Budapest, he wore the red kerchief of the Communist Young Pioneers, it being safer to conform. His father, an army officer, fought the Nazis on the Eastern Front only to be charged with being a western agent after the war. Stalin’s death saved him from execution, but not before the authorities had persuaded his wife — Nagy’s mother — to divorce him if she wanted to keep their child.
Spared, he supported the uprising against the Soviet puppet regime in 1956. When it failed, he fled to Austria with his son, second wife and her children. The US welcomed them in 1957. They made their home in Washington. Nagy Sr. went on to a successful career in the US Agency for International Development.
Most of the kids at Nagy Jr.’s elementary school were black. When they went on to middle school together, he was placed on a higher track. “I am convinced to this day it was based on skin colour because those kids were just as sharp as I was.”
Needless to say, he grew up staunchly anti-communist. In 1964, he went door-to-door for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and has remained unabashedly loyal to the party ever since. He failed his first foreign service exam. On his successful second try, he was asked to name his two favourite presidents. Theodore Roosevelt, he said, then, less predictably, Richard Nixon.
State Department careers are compartmented into various “cones”. Political and economic tend to be the ones to which high fliers are assigned. Nagy found himself in administration, making sure his colleagues were properly housed, fed, transported, equipped and protected.
By design or good fortune, his first assignments were to small or unpopular hardship posts — after Zambia, the Seychelles, Mengistu’s Ethiopia, Togo, Cameroon — where he could step in as de facto deputy head of mission and build a reputation for being an indispensable jack-of-all-trades. Among his many adventures were a near death experience in the Seychelles where a Tanzanian soldier put a gun to his head mistaking him for one of Bob Denard’s dogs of war.
Reading his oral history, I incline to the view that he is coming back to Washington not out of any admiration for the xenophobe, immigrant-bashing, trash-talking Trump but from a sense of duty to the country and its foreign service — which the Trumpists have been doing their utmost to degrade — and from a genuine affection for the continent and its people. He may have bided his time until being sure that the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, would have his back.
As the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of his father-in-law, Julius Agricola, a most able proconsul who served the depraved Domitian, “even under bad emperors there can be great men”.