Velvet President

Why Vaclav Havel is our era's George Orwell and more.


Last fall, as the United States rumbled toward war against Saddam Hussein, literary reviews and higher-brow magazines wrestled with an intriguing if unlikely hypothetical: What would George Orwell say if he were here today?

Christopher Hitchens, the fire-breathing British journalist who kick-started the discussion with his book Why Orwell Matters, suggested that a contemporary Eric Blair "would have seen straight through the characters who chant 'No War On Iraq'" and helped the rest of us to "develop the fiber to call Al-Qaeda what it actually is." Washington Post book reviewer George Scialabba stated confidently that "Orwell would associate himself with the unsexy democratic left, notably Dissent and the American Prospect," and that "he might, in particular, have wondered aloud why the heinous terrorist murder of 3,000 Americans was a turning point in history." Commentary tried yet again to claim Orwell as a neocon, and The Weekly Standard's David Brooks argued that the great man's mantle and relevance had actually passed onto a new contrarian's shoulders: "At this moment, oddly enough, Hitchens matters more than Orwell."

At exactly the same time, the one man in the world of the living who could justifiably claim to be Orwell's heir was expounding almost daily on Saddam Hussein and international terrorism—even while rushing through one of the most frenetic periods of a famously accomplished life. Vaclav Havel, the 66-year-old former Czech president who was term-limited out of office on February 2, built his reputation in the 1970s by being to eyewitness fact what George Orwell was to dystopian fiction. In other words, he used common sense to deconstruct rhetorical falsehoods, pulling apart the suffocating mesh of collectivist lies one carefully observed thread at a time.

Like Orwell, Havel was a fiction writer whose engagement with the world led him to master the nonfiction political essay. Both men, in self-described sentiment, were of "the left," yet both men infuriated the left with their stinging criticism and ornery independence. Both were haunted by the Death of God, delighted by the idiosyncratic habits of their countrymen, and physically diminished as a direct result of their confrontation with totalitarians (not to mention their love of tobacco). As essentially neurotic men with weak mustaches, both have given generations of normal citizens hope that, with discipline and effort, they too can shake propaganda from everyday language and stand up to the foulest dictatorships.

Unlike Orwell, Havel lived long enough to enjoy a robust third act, and his last six months in office demonstrated the same kind of restless, iconoclastic activism that has made him an enemy of ideologues and ally of freedom lovers for nearly five decades.


? Last September he delivered a rousing anti-communist speech over Radio Martí, a much-mocked station funded by Washington and beamed to Cuba. "When the internal crisis of the totalitarian system grows so deep that it becomes clear to everyone," he declared, "and when more and more people learn to speak their own language and reject the hollow, mendacious language of the powers that be, it means that freedom is remarkably close, if not directly within reach." He also nominated Oswald Paya Sardinas—the Cuban spokesman for the Varela Project, an opposition group modeled directly on Havel's 1970s movement Charter 77—for the Nobel Peace Prize. The speech was virtually ignored by the American press.

? In the days preceding, he gave a series of speeches across America that existentially questioned his own fitness for higher office, while still tossing off backbone-stiffening zingers like, "Evil must be confronted in its womb and, if it can't be done otherwise, then it has to be dealt with by the use of force."

? In November he orchestrated and hosted a historic NATO summit in Prague, where the Western alliance formally accepted seven formerly communist countries for membership. Havel, who has long been the most influential advocate for expanding NATO eastward, marked the occasion by installing above the Prague Castle—the Czech presidential residence—a goofy neon heart, of the same design that he draws atop his signature. In his major speech at the event, with George W. Bush looking on, Havel analyzed Iraq through the prism of the 1938 Munich Agreement, when war-shy British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain notoriously sacrificed western Czechoslovakia to Hitler in the name of "peace with honor" and unknowingly gave generations of American interventionists a go-to example whenever it came time to attack another dictator. But before Paul Wolfowitz could high-five Condoleezza Rice, Havel warned that eerily similar high-sounding rhetoric was used to justify the Warsaw Pact's indefensible 1968 invasion of Prague.

? In January, in one of his last official acts as president, he joined seven other European political leaders in signing an open letter supporting Bush's policy toward Iraq. The act drove a wedge between what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gleefully called the "Old Europe" and "New Europe," and led French President Jacques Chirac to threaten to bar the Czech Republic and any other war-supporting Central European country from joining the European Union.

Most normal politicians, after nearly 13 years in power (including two and a half years as president of a unified Czechoslovakia), would lament the end of their special treatment and cling to whatever bureaucratic influence they could grasp. But most normal politicians don't make a life's work out of analyzing the inextricable link between personal freedom and a society's overall health. Though the Czech Republic is exponentially more free than it was when Havel first made his fairy tale ascent from gulag to castle, the former playwright has suffered personally under the constraints imposed by official decorum.

"What I really long for is that I shall be free of duties dictated by protocol," he told London's Sunday Times earlier this year. "Naturally, I have had to express myself in a more cautious and diplomatic manner and I have not been very happy about it."

The Right to Rock

Like Bill Clinton, Vaclav Havel is a product of the 1960s. Unlike Clinton, he inhaled. "That was an extraordinarily interesting, fertile, and inspiring period, not only here, but in the culture of the entire world," he told interviewer Jiri Lederer in 1975. "Personally, too, it was a relatively happy time: 1968 [the year of the 'Prague Spring'] was, for me, just a natural climax of that whole period."

From 1964 until August 21, 1968, Bohemia rediscovered bohemia, producing arguably the most dynamic artistic flowering communism ever tolerated, highlighted by Milos Forman and the Czech New Wave of cinema, novelist Bohumil Hrabal's Slavic take on magical realism, and the madcap theatrical rock band The Plastic People of the Universe. Havel spent this period at the influential and radical Theatre of the Balustrade, where he gobbled speed and pushed the free expression envelope with absurdist topical plays such as The Memorandum and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.

Despite its 1.2 million residents, Prague is a surprisingly small town, where artists of all disciplines bounce off each other on the street or in the pub, and eventually on the newspaper page and gallery wall. Havel, the somewhat shy scion of a bourgeois family (which owned, among other things, the wonderful Lucerna Theatre on Wenceslas Square), was particularly drawn to and awed by the "authentic culture" of unbridled rock music, in a way that recalls the rather prim Orwell's fascination with Henry Miller. He preferred the Stones to the Beatles (let alone Clinton's favorite, Fleetwood Mac), and took from rock-influenced '60s culture "a temperament, a nonconformist state of the spirit, an anti-establishment orientation, an aversion to philistines, and an interest in the wretched and humiliated," he wrote in his underrated 1991 reflection on governing, Summer Meditations.

During this period of cultural thaw and exploration, Havel began to explore the political essay, a form he would eventually master with Orwellian power. "His essays, lectures, and prison letters from the last quarter century are, taken altogether, among the most vivid, sustained, and searching explorations of the moral and political responsibility of the intellectual produced anywhere in Europe," wrote Timothy Garton Ash, the foremost chronicler of revolutionary Central Europe, in his 1999 collection History of the Present. "Indeed, it is difficult to think of any figure in the contemporary world who has more cumulative authority to speak on this issue than Vaclav Havel."

The first targets of Havel's considerable wrath and sarcasm were the poor fools making "halfhearted" efforts at creating "Socialism with a human face." One of his first essays, 1965's "On Evasive Thinking" (collected in the English-language volume Open Letters) makes cruel sport of a newspaper essayist who—not unlike his modern American counterparts—attempted to assess and then dismiss the broader significance of a temporal tragedy, in this case, a building ledge falling and killing a passerby. "The public," Havel wrote, "again showed more intelligence and humanity than the writer, for it had understood that the so-called prospects of mankind are nothing but an empty platitude if they distract us from our particular worry about who might be killed by [another] window ledge, and what will happen should it fall on a group of nursery-school children out for a walk."

Here, in Havel's earliest essay to be translated into English, you can already find the four main themes that have animated his adult nonfiction writing ever since. One is the responsibility to make the world a better place. Another is that the slightest bit of personal dishonesty warps the soul. ("The minute we begin turning a blind eye to what we don't like in each other's writing, the minute we begin to back away from our own inner norms, to accommodate ourselves to each other, cut deals with each other over poetics, we will in fact set ourselves against each other…until one day we will disappear in a general fog of mutual admiration.")

A third theme is that ideology-driven governance is practically doomed to fail. ("It prevents whoever has it in his power to solve the problem of the Prague façades from understanding that he bears responsibility for something and that he can't lie his way out of that responsibility.") Finally, there is his belief in the revolutionary potency of individuals speaking freely and "living in truth."

The last of these phenomena became nearly extinct after the tanks of 1968 rolled in from Russia. The new rulers ushered in the "normalization" period, during which tens of thousands emigrated and most "nonconformist" writers (including Havel) were inconvenienced, banned, or sometimes just locked away. In April 1975, facing an utterly demoralized country and an understandable case of writer's block, Havel committed an act of such sheer ballsiness that the shock waves are still being felt in repressive countries 30 years later. He simply sat down
and, knowing that he'd likely be imprisoned for his efforts, wrote an open letter to his dictator, Gustav Husak, explaining in painstaking detail just why and how totalitarianism was ruining Czechoslovakia.

"So far," Havel scolded Husak, "you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power."

It was the Big Bang that set off the dissident movement in Central Europe. For those lucky enough to read an illegally retyped copy or hear it broadcast over Radio Free Europe, the effect was not unlike what happened to the 5,000 people who bought the Velvet Underground's first record: After the shock and initial pleasure wore off, many said, "Wait a minute, I can do this too!" By standing up to a system that had forced every citizen to make a thousand daily compromises, Havel was suggesting a novel new tactic: Have the self-respect to tell the truth, never mind the consequences, and maybe you'll put the bastards on the defensive.

"I felt the need to stir things up," he told his interviewer Lederer at the time, "to confront others for a change and force them to deal with a situation that I myself had created."

This act of literary punk rock was followed, logically enough, by a defense of rock music that sparked the Charter 77 movement. Or, as Havel told a startled Lou Reed when he met the Velvet Underground's former frontman in 1990, "Did you know that I am president because of you?"

Defending The Plastic People

In 1968 a rare copy of the Velvet Underground's first record somehow found its way to Prague. It became a sensation in music circles and beyond, eventually inspiring the Czech name for their bloodless 1989 overthrow of Communist rule, "the Velvet Revolution." The Plastic People, then a newly formed troupe that borrowed heavily from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, quickly added a half-dozen songs from The Velvet Underground & Nico to their repertoire. The group was banned not long after the Prague Spring concluded but continued to play at weddings and secret shows.

Then, in 1976, four members were arrested on charges of "disturbing the peace." The Czech dissident movement, newly roused by Havel's open letter, made the trial an international cause. Havel, who intuitively grasped the symbolism of the case, was in the courtroom every day to witness and document the judicial farce. Just as George Orwell saw picking up a gun to shoot fascists in the Spanish Civil War as "the only conceivable thing to do," Havel understood this assault on freedom as one outrage too far. It was a turning point in his life. "Everyone understood," he wrote later, "that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together: it was an attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life."

His essay on the trial has the rushed and liberated tone of someone who has just crossed a personal point of no return, or has just heard the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks for the first time. It ends with a classic description of Havel bumping into a film director who didn't understand the sudden enthusiasm for defending some derelict rock musicians.

"Perhaps I'm doing him an injustice," Havel wrote, "but at that moment, I was overwhelmed by an intense feeling that this dear man belonged to a world that I no longer wish to have anything to do with—and Mr. Public Prosecutor Kovarik, pay attention, because here comes a vulgar word—I mean the world of cunning shits."

The Plastic People trial spurred Havel and his friends to form Charter 77, a human rights organization built around a petition that asked, simply, that the Czechoslovak government adhere to the Final Act of the 1975 Helsinki Agreement—specifically its covenants on civil, political, and economic rights—to which it had recently become a signatory. Living up to Helsinki would have meant allowing free expression, "freedom from fear," freedom of religious practice, and other rights then quashed by the Communists. This narrow, legalistic tactic, which has since been emulated the world over, allowed the dissidents to claim that they were not, after all, agitating against the regime, but rather asking it to follow its own acknowledged legislation.

The wind now at the anti-Communists' sails, Havel uncorked his most famous and influential essay of all, "The Power of the Powerless." It starts by dissecting exactly why a greengrocer would put a sign in his window saying "Workers of the world, unite," and how this "dictatorship of the ritual" is used as a knowingly false brand of ideological glue to keep the Party in charge.

If shopkeepers and others suddenly stopped observing the rituals, and instead spoke and acted freely, he predicted (with unnerving accuracy), "The entire pyramid of totalitarian power, deprived of the element that binds it together, would collapse in upon itself, as it were, in a kind of material implosion." The essay, which was addressed to 20 prominent dissidents from around the East Bloc, also served as a micro-analysis of the new "dissent." Just 40 months after delivering his bolt out of the blue to Gustav Husak, Havel was now breaking down the finer points of a movement that his own open letter forced into the world. As a direct result, he spent most of the next five years in jail.

After being released, with his health now diminished, Havel could not resist the temptation to bite the hands even of those who would reach out to him, should they be deserving. Perhaps the most remarkable essay in this genre was 1985's "Anatomy of a Reticence," where Havel described the dissidents' suspicion of the "Western peace movement" then lobbying for an end to the nuclear arms race. It foreshadowed his later impatience with reflexive anti-Americanism. Here's a stirring passage on ideology and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan:

"How much trust or even admiration for the Western peace movement can we expect from a simple yet sensitive citizen of Eastern Europe when he has noticed that this movement has never, at any of its congresses or at demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of participants, got around to protesting the fact that five years ago, one important European country attacked a small neutral neighbor and since that time has been conducting on its territory a war of extermination which has already claimed a million dead and three million refugees? Seriously, what are we to think of a peace movement, a European peace movement, which is virtually unaware of the only war being conducted today by a European state? As for the argument that the victims of aggression and their defenders enjoy the sympathies of Western establishments and so are not worthy of support from the left, such incredible ideological opportunism can provoke only one reaction—utter disgust and a sense of limitless hopelessness."

The Culture of Markets

The same instincts and habits that made Havel the foremost observer of modern-day Stalinism got him into unexpected trouble not long after he helped engineer one of the most inspiring and bloodless revolutions in history. It is one thing to shoot your mouth off, tell your audience the opposite of what they want to hear, and hang around with beer-swilling "underground" characters. It's quite another to deftly juggle the nuances of presidential behavior in a newly emergent democracy.

In July 1990 Washington Post legend Benjamin Bradlee detected "early warnings of threats to the new Czech freedom" after Havel complained to him that the local press "forgets…that the freedom is only one side of the coin, where the other side is represented by responsibility." Free traders grimaced at Havel's repeated railings against the "ideology of the market," especially when compared to then-Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus and his blunt adulation of Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, and "a market economy without adjectives." Staunch Czech anti-Communists, particularly the generation that fled the country after 1968, begrudged their samizdat hero for using his new power to seek reconciliation with, not justice against, the hundreds of thousands of collaborators who made the police state logistically possible.

Political realists had their doubts about Havel as well. In 1990 he emptied Czechoslovakia's prisons and shuttered its national arms factories, acts that smacked of rash hippie idealism—a diagnosis consistent with his disturbingly fuzzy talk of "nonpolitical politics." Klaus, meanwhile, was busying himself with the urgent task of herding anti-totalitarians into a professional political party that promptly trounced all comers. Even Havel's admiring former advisers, such as Boston University's Chandler Rosenberger, warned at the time that the utopian Castle longhairs "became prone to fantastic delusions" of "transforming the politics of the planet."

With dissident contemporaries such as Lech Walesa, Adam Michnik, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn dropping out of post-communist politics and into self-parody, it was hardly a stretch to imagine Havel as destined for a position more suited to his talents: editing a Czech literary magazine, say, or running an Open Society think tank funded by George Soros. When Czechoslovakia's June 1992 elections placed Klaus and Slovak nationalist Vladimir Meciar firmly in charge of the increasingly incompatible Czech and Slovak republics, Havel resigned rather than preside over the "Velvet Divorce" he felt was a "fatal error." It seemed logical that the unglamorous, nuts-and-bolts business of "transition" would now be managed by the more technocratically adept Klaus.

But the smart money was wrong. Havel was the only real choice considered when the new Czech Republic needed a president in January 1993. And Havel's entire career and philosophy, like Orwell's, were dedicated to navigating ideological minefields under the extreme duress of personal participation and suffering. This skill, it turns out, had some relevance in the post-Gorbachev world too. Like Orwell's, Havel's words and zesty one-liners can be (and have been) quoted selectively to make him sound conservative, liberal, and otherwise, and his bedrock belief in the transformative power of "calling things by their proper names" virtually ensured that some of his freewheeling opinions would set off alarm bells among those who see the shadow of socialism in such phrases as "civil society" and "new politics."

"I once said that I considered myself a socialist," Havel wrote in Summer Meditations. "I merely wanted to suggest that my heart was, as they say, slightly left of center." The words could have come directly out of Orwell's mouth: "In sentiment I am definitely 'left,'" he wrote in 1940, "but I believe that a writer can only remain honest if he keeps free of party labels."

Havel went on to discuss the futility of those who would pin an ideological tag to his lapel. "All my adult life, I was branded by officials as 'an exponent of the right' who wanted to bring capitalism back to our country," he wrote. "Today—at a ripe old age—I am suspected by some of being left-wing, if not of harboring out-and-out socialist tendencies. What, then, is my real position? First and foremost, I have never espoused any ideology, dogma, or doctrine—left-wing, right-wing, or any other closed, ready-made system of presuppositions about the world. On the contrary, I have tried to think independently, using my own powers of reason, and I have always vigorously resisted attempts to pigeonhole me."

No one tried to pigeonhole Havel more than his revolutionary comrade turned rival Vaclav Klaus, and many of the president's comments that were perceived initially to be illiberal were, in fact, thinly veiled rebukes to Klaus, whom Havel suspected of placing his own political ambitions above genuine concern for the country. In a society seeking moral footing after 50 years of totalitarian rot, Havel found Klaus' public manners personally appalling and potentially combustible.

Passing early judgments on Central European politics can be a loser's game, but Havel's warnings about Klaus—and on the dangers of immorality in post-revolution politics—turned out to be prescient. Despite his still-glowing reputation among American conservatives, Klaus has been nobody's Thatcherite since at least 1993, and probably earlier. Reforms that the Hungarian Socialist Party was ramming through in 1995—freeing rent and utility prices, cleaning up and selling off banks, introduc-
ing greater capital markets transparency—Klaus never bothered with at all. This despite having a clear mandate from 1989 to late 1997, when a collapsing economy and various corruption scandals forced him to resign. As Thomas Hazlett wrote in the March 1998 issue of reason, Klaus had "all but shelved further efforts at economic liberalization and declared the transformation complete."

The one Czech politician who consistently challenged Klaus to get economic reform rolling again was none other than Vaclav Havel, the same guy suspected in the early '90s of being a Third Way quasi-socialist without the "stomach" for market policies. For those more interested in facts than in stereotypes, Havel's remarkable December 9, 1997, speech to the Czech Parliament took Klaus to the woodshed for dragging his feet on reforms and advocated specific measures far toothier than the shock therapy slogans Klaus had been mouthing since 1990. According to Havel, reforms had resulted in the appearance of a market rather than the real thing.

"I do not share the view held by some of you that the entire transformation started from the wrong foundations, was wrongly devised and wrongly directed," Havel said. "I would rather say that our problem lies in the very opposite: the transformation process stopped halfway, which is possibly the worst thing that could have happened to it.

"Many businesses have been formally priva–tized, but how many have concrete visible owners who seek increasing effectiveness and who care about the long-term prospects of their companies?…[T]hose who represent the owners see their role not as a task, mission or commitment but simply as an opportunity to transfer the entrusted money somewhere else and get out….A rather strange role, to my mind, is often played by our banks: they indirectly own companies that are operating at a loss, and the more the companies lose the more money the banks lend them….The legal framework of privatization, as well as of the capital market, is being perfected only now. Is it not rather late?"

In a region where power has almost always corrupted, Klaus has had more of it, and for longer, than any of his transition peers. (Even when he lost the 1998 elections, he entered a controversial power-sharing agreement with the ruling Socialists.) Havel's hectoring surely served as a restraint on Klaus' ambitions. It is hardly surprising that, after Havel stepped down, Klaus succeeded by the narrowest of margins in replacing his long-time rival at the Castle.

Rumpled Prophet

Havel is a short and rumpled man, even in a sharp presidential suit. He's a disaster at press conferences, wiggling his tube-socked feet under the table and making chewing sounds into the microphone before each response. He nearly died three times in the last eight years from various illnesses, and he reportedly headed to Portugal for a long cure soon after stepping down as president. He describes himself as perpetually nervous, afraid someone's going to wake him from the dream and put him back in jail, where he probably belongs. He may have been the life of the party a time or two, but overall the impression he gives is that of an unspectacular man who probably would rather be drunk.

This is one of his true gifts to the rest of us, and once again recalls Orwell's legacy. As in Orwell's case, Havel's talents seem far more the result of hard work and discipline than any once-in-a-generation gift of talent. If this normal-looking character could shake off the hangover long enough to give an eloquent finger to The Man, well, what were you doing with your time?

Once in office, Havel took pains to remain himself. On his first New Year's speech, in 1990, he started by saying "I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you," and from that point on tried to give his fellow citizens the feeling that one of them was up in the Castle. The same impact can be seen on many of his foreign admirers; when I ask my American or British friends who lived in Prague to tell me their favorite story about Havel, it usually involves them bumming a smoke off the guy, or sharing a urinal, or seeing him with a hot blonde at a rock show. Though he quickly grew out of the blue jeans phase, and was careful about the ceremonial dignities of office, he was forever injecting informality into the serious work of public life. He was trying to practice democracy with a human face.

When Clinton or Boris Yeltsin or Pink Floyd came to town, Havel would take them out to a typical Czech pub. "As for heads of state," he once told the Czech newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes, "I haven't met anyone yet whose eyes didn't shine with delight when I suggested that after the official reception we should go get a beer somewhere really quick." For years, he lived in an accessible apartment along the river, and most Praguers can still tell you his favorite pubs.

Three successive United States presidents have fallen under Havel's spell, and he in turn has used his access to cajole them into taking military action against Slobodan Milosevic, expanding NATO, and minding the lessons of Munich. Clinton and George W. Bush in particular seem tongue-tied and awe-struck in the presence of someone who actually fought communism and lived to tell about it; Havel returns the favor by flattering America's role in taking down the Evil Empire. His open, though qualified, flattery of the U.S. is one reason Noam Chomsky considers him "morally repugnant" and on an "intellectual level that is vastly below that of Third World peasants and Stalinist hacks."

Chomsky's insults aside, Havel has enabled Czechs to punch above their weight in international affairs for 13 years; this will likely end as the extraordinary geopolitical circumstances that created him fade and are replaced by more provincial Czech political concerns. Havel himself sees his career as a massive historical accident, even a joke. But as he walks off the global stage, Czechs and the rest of the world can be thankful that someone like him was essentially in the wrong place at the right time. He remains a figure from whom not just insight but inspiration can be drawn.

"The most important thing," Havel said in his final New Year's address as president, "is that new generations are maturing, generations of people who grew up free and are not deformed by life under Communist rule. These are the first Czechs of our times who inherently consider freedom normal and natural. It would be great if the breaking through of these people into various parts of public life leads to our society more factually, thoroughly and impartially examining its past, without whose reflection we cannot be ourselves. I also hope it will lead to our successfully parting with many ill consequences of the work of destruction the Communist regime wreaked upon our souls."