Maxim Behar: Hillary Clinton Is among the US Politicians Who Are Most Positive towards Bulgaria

Interview |Author: Ivan Dikov | February 5, 2012, Sunday // 20:30|  views

Bulgarian PR expert Maxim Behar (right) with then US First Lady Hillary Clinton in Sofia back in 1998. Photo by M3 Communications Group, Inc

Maxim Behar is a Bulgarian PR and media expert, founder and CEO of one of the leaders on the Bulgarian PR market, M3 Communications Group, Inc. As of January 2012, he is the Chairman of the Czech Republic Office of leading global corporation Hill+Knowlton Strategies. Behar is also the Treasurer and a Member of the Executive Board of the International Communication Consultancy Organization (ICCO), and a member of the Board of the global PR forum in Davos "Communication on Top", which is to be opened on Wednesday, February 8.

Behar has organized hundreds of large international forums in Bulgaria and around the world. He served as the PR and Media Director during the first visit of Hillary Clinton in Bulgaria back in 1998 in Clinton's capacity of the First Lady of the USA.

In 2010, Maxim Behar attended a hosted by US State Secretary Hillary Clinton for the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C.

We addressed him with a few questions about Hillary Clinton's first visit to Bulgaria, and about his opinion on Clinton's second visit, this time in her capacity as the US Secretary of State.


You served as the PR and Media Director for Hillary Clinton during her first ever visit in Bulgaria in her capacity of the US First Lady. 1998 seems very distant – it was a year after Bulgaria's banking and political crisis, and right in the midst of the sex scandal with US President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski...

It was a great challenge. For the first time in Bulgaria's history we had a visit by the US First Lady, an institution that we don't have in Bulgaria, and that we probably will never have. The wife of then Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov, Antonina Stoyanova, was formally Clinton's host back then, and she invited me to take care of the overall organization of an international women's conference which was opened by Hillary.

That was an extremely important international event that had been unknown to Bulgaria until then in terms of both security requirements, and responsibility for the punctuality of the organization.

My responsibility was to handle Hillary Clinton's media appearances but in fact she didn't have any. She didn't talk to a single Bulgarian journalist, she didn't give any interviews, she didn't answer a single question of the reporters while passing by them.

And that wasn't just in Bulgaria – she would keep quiet everywhere. The reason for that was the entire Monica Lewinski story, and Hillary Clinton's position was to have no position on it. We had several conversations in which I tried time and again to convince her to receive several Bulgarian journalists who wouldn't mention a word about Monica Lewinski or about her husband, President Bill Clinton.

However, she would gracefully steer the conversation into another topic, and, thus, my responsibilities boiled down to "fending off" just as gracefully any media requests, while still referring them to her press secretary so as to keep him informed.

However, my enormous responsibility was the overall organization of the international conference, and that was a challenge not only for Bulgaria but also for my company – M3 Communications Group, Inc., which back then consisted of only several staff members.

So what was the greatest challenge?

Hillary Clinton's team arrived in Bulgaria a month in advance – the so called producers (come to think of it – it was indeed a show to be produced), security officers, a press team, image consultants, and a dozen advisers. I was with them from dawn till dusk, and I got lessons that I couldn't have gotten not only in Bulgaria but even in Europe at that time.

The entire time one of the security officers kept repeating to me, "No flowers in front of the podium, please, keep that in mind, it is very important." The conference was supposed to be opened at 9 am in the morning. Of course, we didn't wink the entire night. Several hours before the opening – it think it was about 3 am – the chief producer, Bain Ennis, a great professional, summoned me to the stage (the conference was held at the Ivan Vazov National Theater in Sofia), and asked me in a rather exacting voice, "Max, where are the flowers?" I told him about the requirements of the security staff but he said, "I cleared that up with them, I will not have my First Lady on the stage without any flowers..."

That was at 3 am. I was dumbfounded. I called the then marketing director of the Sofia Sheraton Hotel to ask her if I could borrow the hotel flowers but she turned me down flatly because Hillary was staying at the hotel. I tried the same with her counterpart at the Kempinski Hotel, and I managed to convince her on the condition that her boss, who was an Irishman and a good friend of mine, would never find out.

I got out on the Rakovski Str, got into a cab, had the driver call up a few more taxis, we loaded the flowers at the Kempinski Hotel, and decorated perfectly the conference stage for Hillary, who was by the wives of presidents from all over Southern and Eastern Europe.

At noon, I returned the flowers to the hotel in full conspiracy, and a little later the chief at the Kempinski called me on my mobile, and asked me in a high-spirited voice, "I watched Hillary's speech on TV. You were the one to organize the conference, right? Apparently we use the same flower supplier because the flowers were like ours at the hotel. You made a great choice..." I probably have at least ten more similarly extreme stories from Clinton's visit in 1998.

Would you care to reveal another one of these stories?

I managed to convince Mrs. Stoyanova to have Dimi Panitsa, a great Bulgarian and a great friend who left us just several months ago, open the international women's conference that Hillary Clinton was attending in Sofia.

The entire time my argument for that was that with so many women on stage, there should be one man who speaks perfect English, and whose so called "body language" would make Hillary feel comfortable. However, Mrs. Stoyanova had a different idea about it, and adamantly refused.

It was the day before Clinton's visit. I got very nervous, and left the Bulgarian Presidency feeling even a little offended. I shut the door behind my back without turning, and angrily strolled down to the parking lot of the Sheraton Hotel where I had parked. I hadn't reached my car yet when my mobile phone rang, and the voice on the line nearly sang, "I am bothering you from Mrs. Stoyanova's office to find out if you have the contacts of Mr. Panitsa." I took a breath of relief, and that is how Dimi Panitsa was the Bulgarian man who took the US First Lady to the stage the following day, during her first ever visit to Bulgaria.

What were the two ladies like – during the first visit of the US First Lady to Bulgaria? What was Hillary Clinton's attitude when she came to Sofia?

Both were high-class. Mrs. Stoyanova speaks very fluent English, and she was extremely well prepared, and I think that she represented Bulgaria perfectly. There were some comments about some of her leather accessories on her clothing during the opening of the conference but I am no great fashion expert, and it would be hard for me to assess that. Other than a few envious persons, hardly anybody else noticed it.

Hillary Clinton was very well-intentioned. She was very curious, and she told interesting stories the entire time. She was cheerful and positive – after all her visit wasn't focused on politics. She carefully wrote down interesting things and constantly asked questions.

Overall, the two ladies were on a very high level. Hillary Clinton is one of the most positive politicians towards Bulgaria that I have every seen... and I have seen many. The reason for her positive attitude towards Bulgaria certainly has to do with her first visit in Sofia some 14 years ago.

What was the most memorable aspect of the first visit of the US First Lady to Bulgaria? Was the Monica Lewinski sex scandal a major topic?

No, nobody even mentioned this topic. She was too sensitive about it. The most memorable thing was her positive attitude, and the euphoria that the US First Lady had noticed us, in the small, post-crisis Bulgaria, meaning that the USA was looking at us, and were interested in us.

Today, almost 15 years later, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made some rather moving but also very clich? praises for Bulgaria and for the Bulgarian-US alliance. What is hidden behind these praises, in your view?

Nothing is hidden. They are true. We must never set the USA against Russia, or if we are to do this, it should never involve Bulgaria's name.

We are a Slavic and an Eastern Orthodox nation just like Russia but the values of American democracy are too close to us, and very realizable in our conditions. The freedom of the media, the mother of all freedoms in a modern democracy, free market, competition, transparency of decision-making, efficient public control – all of that are elements of democracy that are applicable in Bulgaria.

We want them, and it is very natural for the US Secretary of State to point that out – even if in a more moving way and with the – typical political – clich?s.

You've met with Hillary Clinton on various occasions. What is her attitude towards Bulgaria? Does she recognize Bulgaria in any way from among the other countries in Eastern Europe?

I have a feeling that she has a sentiment for Bulgaria. She would always say, "I remember when I was there, I remember what your country was like, and I am proud of what you've managed to achieve." I hope that she just as well knows how much we have yet to achieve. I hope that all of us in Bulgaria understand that, and that we work very hard for that. Hillary Clinton's help can only be welcomed but at the end of the day this entire change depends on us, and on us only.

Hillary Clinton has gone from a First Lady to a Senator and a leading US Presidency candidate, and off to the Secretary of State position. Should we expect that her transformation – or her emancipation – will culminate in the position of US President? If Hillary Clinton is once again in the White House, what would this scenario bring for Bulgaria?

I don't believe that such a scenario is possible but a modern democracy, however painfully imperfect it might be, assumes that it is possible. If it does happen – if Hillary becomes the President of the USA, I bet that Bulgaria will be first Eastern European nation that she will visit. And then I will tell her the story of how I had to find flowers that night so that we can welcome her properly in her first morning in Sofia...

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Tags: Hillary Clinton, first lady, USA, US, Maxim Behar, M3 Communications Group, 1998, US Secretary of State


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