ONE of the largest and most passionate crowds President Bill Clinton has ever drawn was in Bucharest, where he stopped for an eight-hour visit on July 11 of last year. Though crowds of comparable size had greeted him in Ireland and Africa, the Romanian crowd was unique, because American officials did not expect it. In fact, they worried that the people who would come to greet Clinton on that frying-hot afternoon on dusty, treeless avenues in the Romanian capital would be too few, and even hostile. Only three days before, at a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Madrid, the American-led alliance had decided not to admit Romania in the first wave of its post-Cold War expansion but to admit Romania's historical adversary, Hungary.
Yet hundreds of thousands of people packed the wide boulevards from Piata Universitatii, where Clinton spoke, to Piata Romana, a mile away, shouting "NATO, NATO" in ecstasy -- more people than at Clinton's stop the day before in Poland, a country that along with Hungary and the Czech Republic had just been accepted into NATO. In an interview last spring at the Cotroceni Palace, in Bucharest, the Romanian President, Emil Constantinescu, said about the strength of the showing for Clinton, "In World War Two, American planes bombed Romania [an ally of Nazi Germany through 1944]. Some American pilots were shot down. What did the villagers do? They hid the pilots." Constantinescu exclaimed, waving his hands, "It was absurd. The villagers protected at their own, grave risk the very men who had bombed them. This can't have happened very often in the history of aerial bombardment. Whatever America does, Romanians love you, because America represents the West, to which we know we belong. In the late 1940s, naive as it may sound to you, Romanians literally watched the skies, waiting for American planes to rescue them from Russian communism. When the Americans didn't come, we were brutally separated from the West for decades."
For Romanians, Constantinescu and others told me, Clinton's visit symbolized nothing less than the closing of that dark historical chapter, which continued beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall. Gorbachev-style Communists carried out the December 25, 1989, execution of the Stalinist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his equally sadistic wife, Elena, who had reduced the caloric intake of many Romanians to less than what it had been during the First World War enemy occupation. Those Communists held power until 1996, when Constantinescu, a geology professor, was elected President. He rammed through historic reconciliation treaties with neighboring Hungary and Ukraine, began to liberalize the economy, and filled the senior staff positions of the Romanian military with young, English-speaking officers. He was Romania's first moral head of state since the corrupt and politically disastrous King Carol II ascended the throne in 1930. Clinton's appearance on the podium with Constantinescu -- and his vow before throngs of Romanians that "the door to NATO is open ... and we will help you walk through it" -- has, in a part of the world where words and dates are remembered pathologically, assumed the aura of a sacred trust.