The Power Of a Powerless President
VACLAV HAVEL is in a hurry. It is midafternoon at the Castle here, the Czech president's schedule is crackling. The former dissident appears, wearing slippers and a shy smile, saying he will be right back.Skip to next paragraph
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President Havel has been in a hurry all year. The leader of the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which freed the nation from Communism, is struggling to remain relevant in his own country.
Abroad he is still seen as a global moral conscience, much like Nelson Mandela and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His open letters to Czech leaders and signature on the Charter 77 human rights manifesto during the cold war got him imprisoned several times and helped earn him the reputation as a leading voice on the problems of the human spirit and politics.
Today, the playwright-president plays this global role at Harvard University, where he gives the address at what is arguably the most prestigious commencement in the United States.
But at home in Prague, Havel is waist deep in local details, learning a new game and fighting off both friends and enemies who feel he should not be president. Some indicators suggest he may be bouncing back from efforts to marginalize him. After two years of what insiders say have been a political wringer for Havel, including a little-talked-about personal depression, he is starting to see some daylight. His approval rating has jumped to 77 percent, according to Czech polls.
In part, the shift seems due to a general worry among many Czechs that the pace of the economic reform may erase their better values. "People are turning back to some basic questions, ethics, decency, and finding that Havel has been there all along," says one Czech diplomat.
Starting a discussion
Havel, in a Monitor interview, states he is "trying to contemplate broader questions, our state of civilizational crisis."
"I don't think of myself as trying to save the world. But I simply feel it is my duty to say aloud some of my thoughts, to start a discussion, a transcontinental one," he adds.
Today's Harvard address, obtained by the Monitor, may fit this bill. He argues that the global electronic culture has become a dangerously shallow mixture of CNN, the Rolling Stones, and familiar Euro-American styles. "Our conscience must catch up to our reason, or we are lost."
The "hook" in the speech is a sharp attack on what Havel sees as American isolationism, and shirking of a larger role. "Like it or not, the United States now bears probably the greatest responsibility for the direction our world will take."
This address fits a pattern of meditations on civilization that began last year in a speech given in Philadelphia on July 4. On another overseas trip, however, Havel's plane landed at the Sydney airport at the same time as the Rolling Stones' and, with the red carpet literally rolled out and waiting, he stole over to the Stones' plane for a 10-minute meeting with Mick Jagger.
Such antics, typical two years ago, are rarer today. Havel is on a crash program of presidential discipline. Protocol is the most important word on the president's staff. Havel's schedule is sliced and diced to minutes and seconds; he gives few interviews.
"In '89 he was a mediator and people's president," says Vladimir Feldman of GJW, Inc., a Prague consulting firm. "Now he wants to become a true politician. He's had to give up his earthy manners and stick to protocol. This is causing him some problems. He is not quite influential, and not quite his old self."