"All politics is local." So Congressman Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, the late Democratic power broker, once famously observed. Although the legendary New England buttonholer's succinct aphorism originally concerned an election he'd lost in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1930s, his words continue to resonate. As they did recently when I set off by Jaguar XJ from a rock-music festival in Latvia to catch up with Toomas Hendrik Ilves, president of Estonia, the smallest, most northern, and most thriving of the three former Soviet republics on the Baltic Sea. Ilves and I once had a political connection, and while it had been some time ago, it was very local. How's that?
The Jaguar part is easy: the carmaker sent an XJ -- my current favorite luxury touring sedan -- overland from its German headquarters, through Poland, to meet us in Riga, Latvia, a handsome port city at the mouth of the Daugava River. From Riga, we would drive an hour to Salacgriva to catch my musical charges, the band OK Go, who were performing at the Positivus Festival, a multiday, open-air rock event. Then it was on to Estonia, where we'd spend a few nights in Paernu, a sleepy seaside retreat on the Gulf of Riga, before heading to the country's capital, the quaint, walled city of Tallinn. Afterward, we'd travel back to Latvia for a few days of castle hopping before rounding out our whirlwind, 1000-mile Baltic tour with twenty hours in Lithuania, birthplace of my paternal grandmother.
Many surprises lay in store for our intrepid trio of English speakers -- me, photographer Martyn Goddard, and my bon vivant college chum, Richard Hart, a former New Orleanian who, like us, enjoys new places, strong drink, and four square meals a day. Eastern Europe gets a bad rap in the United States, even among those who've never been there, so a little look at the facts, up close and personal, couldn't hurt. Among the things we didn't anticipate: the natural beauty and abundance of unspoiled lands, the quality of the roads, and the general ease of transit. The people look great, too: fit, well-dressed, handsome. Then there was the unexpected appeal of the architecture, along with the hospitable kindness of persons who once lived behind the Iron Curtain, individuals who we in the West were taught to imagine as grim, boring, and unfriendly, but who proved anything but. Still, for sheer improbability, the Estonian president's story gave everything and everyone else a run for their money.
Toomas Ilves' father, Endel, fled Estonia as a young man in 1944. Acting on a tip, he left the same family farm to which our trio had been invited -- near Abja Parish, some forty miles inland from Paernu -- just ahead of Russian troops marching in to reoccupy the country. In 1941, Estonia had been annexed by Adolf Hitler's Germany. Although the Nazis' stay was memorable, it wouldn't last long, and, having already declared it a Soviet state in 1940 (Estonia had been part of the Russian empire before declaring its independence in 1918), the Soviets were coming to reclaim the country when Endel escaped to Sweden. Beleaguered Estonia would remain under Communist rule until the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
In Sweden, the elder Ilves would marry a Russian exile he'd known in Estonia, Irene Rebane, but there was no thought of returning to his homeland -- and the farm his family had lived on since at least 1763 -- after the war. While many Estonians welcomed the Nazis as liberators who might have gone a little far by rapidly exterminating that portion of the country's relatively small Jewish population that the Russians hadn't already killed or deported to Siberia on account of their wealth, the Germans, too, soon came to be viewed as occupiers. But the young man, a member of a land-owning family, would have found the Communists just as brutal. In due course, they'd confiscate all 200 acres of his family's farm.
Thus, when their eldest son, Toomas Hendrik, was a boy, the Ilveses quit Sweden and headed not home, but for America. Settling finally in the sleepy hamlet of Leonia, New Jersey -- a leafy suburb of 8000 souls not even three miles from New York City -- Ilves' father worked as a systems analyst and his mother became the town's librarian. Of note here, a few blocks from the Ilves' home stood the North American headquarters for what would become British Leyland, makers, in the day, of Jaguar cars.
Flash forward to 1970. The first Jaguar XJ has recently been launched. I am twelve years old and have begun a five-year sentence at Leonia High School, where I quickly fall under the sway of a sparkling orator four years my elder, the newly elected vice president of the school's student council and the class of 1972's future valedictorian, one Tom Ilves. A skilled politician even then, this tall, long-haired junior -- with a fashion-forward penchant for tweed sport jackets -- managed, while attending to his official duties, to humor an awkward, argumentative cadre of young student-council loudmouths whose tedious number included yours truly.
The student leader offered unexpected moral support for our affinity group of downtrodden underclassmen as we introduced annoying student resolutions, one after the other, such as a proposal for a moratorium on French class until the United States announced its withdrawal from Vietnam.
But Ilves, who could be dismissive, even withering, to political opponents, tolerated such amateur theater. With our admiration only heightened by his parents' dark green Volvo 1800S and a plain Jane but stealthily quick Plymouth Satellite station wagon, both of which he used to ferry us around, the boy crushes were fully installed.
Looking back, I see that Ilves' innate skill at building unlikely coalitions has served him well, evidenced when Estonia's parliament granted the fifty-seven-year-old a second five-year term in August. Ilves today, like the Ilves of our youth, would be considered fairly liberal in the United States, but by European standards he is a pro-Western moderate whose popularity is partly the result of the comparatively strong condition of the Estonian economy through the global downturn, the country's entry into NATO, and its recent admission to the Eurozone. He has been a vigorous advocate for technology -- the country has been referred to as E-stonia for its universal Internet access -- and press freedom. And although hurt by tight credit and the worldwide recession, the country has less debt than most of Europe and employs every programmer it can mint. With his wife, Evelin, Ilves reads and travels widely, often visiting other heads of state, and, we discovered, he is something of a regional sex symbol. Not bad for a guy from New Jersey.