Havel: Hero Of Our Time

Twenty-two years ago, almost to the day, thousands in Prague's Wenceslas Square roared, "Havel to the Castle." Days later, like a house of cards, Moscow's puppet government collapsed. On December 29, 1989, Vaclav Havel, the dissident artist who had begun the year in prison, took the oath of office as president of Czechoslovakia.

Timothy Garton Ash, the English historian who witnessed those momentous events, called Czechoslovakia "the most delightful of all the year's Central European revolutions." He was amazed at "the speed, the improvisation, the merriness and the absolutely central role of Vaclav Havel, who was at once director, playwright, stage-manager and leading actor in this his greatest play."

Havel's morality play -- with truth and honesty held high -- endured for the 12 years of his presidency and thereafter until the end of his life. Only two months ago, I watched a stooped and frail Havel open his Forum 2000 conference in Prague with these words:

"I am deeply convinced that a fully-fledged democracy cannot exist without responsibility, nor can it exist without the rule of law... Unless a legal system is grounded on moral order, it can neither operate properly nor command respect. (Without this) we will live in an indifferent, demoralized and undemocratic society."

Havel's words apply to scores of countries, certainly his own, which ranks high for corruption and where the legal system is seldom used to bring to justice those who abuse public trust.

While unquestionably courageous in standing up for his beliefs, Havel was not an effective politician. Jiri Kunert, a leading banker in Prague, told me that "Havel was an excellent president" but an ineffective politician. "He was too nice," says Kunert, "and naïve in thinking that if he asked people nicely they would do his bidding."

Havel's courage and moral authority are best revealed in his speeches, most of which he wrote himself and limited to a dozen or so per year. In February 1992 I watched him electrify a huge audience at the World Economic Forum with his call for heightened global cooperation in a dangerous post-communist world.

I think the end of communism is a serious warning to all mankind. It is a signal that the era of arrogant, absolutist reason is drawing to a close... This important message to the human race, is coming at the eleventh hour. We all know that our civilization is in danger. The population explosion and the greenhouse effect, holes in the ozone and AIDS, the threat of nuclear terrorism... represents a general threat to mankind. ...The large paradox at the moment is that man -- a great collector of information -- is well aware of this, yet is absolutely incapable of dealing with this danger to himself.

What a thinker, the man who declared "truth and love will always triumph over the lie and hatred." We're unlikely to see the likes of him again.

While most comfortable crafting thoughts into coherent sentences, Havel in person was mischievous, witty, halting in speech, publicly awkward and disarmingly modest. In the masterful "Citizen Havel," a 2008 Czech documentary, the former president is presented as often bumbling, sometimes overly attentive to detail, but above all human. He indeed is a person with whom you'd like to share a beer, as Havel surely did in his favorite Prague pubs.

I asked Alan Levy, the legendary founding editor of the Prague Post and author of the phrase "Prague is the Paris of the 90s," why the Czech capital had become a destination of young Americans seeking literary recognition. He replied at once, "Because of Vaclav Havel." Other post-communist capitals were equally mysterious or cheap, he went on, but none of them had a famous essayist and playwright as president.

Until the end, Havel maintained his gift for asking the right questions. In his valedictory talk in October, he emphasized the "many issues related to our existence on this planet -- education, culture, spiritual values, the coexistence of people of different civilizations."

Havel's health had long been in decline, broken really by months of imprisonment when he was often denied medical attention. He also suffered from being a chain smoker, a habit he didn't eschew until too late. Havel was blessed with two loving women. His first wife Olga died in 1996. His second, Dagmar, was with him at the end, which came at his beloved cottage in the hills of North Bohemia.

Barry Wood was the Voice of America's economic transformation correspondent in Prague from 1994 to 1997.