12/30/2011 02:04 pm ET | Updated Feb 29, 2012

The Legacy of Vaclav Havel

Prague, Czech Republic
December 23, 2011

The feelings of sadness, loss, grief were palatable as I walked around Prague and went to the Presidential Palace. Today was Vaclav Havel's funeral. At noon a siren sounded and everyone stopped to reflect for a minute on his life. I looked at the faces of the people around me. It was clear that for many this was personal; so many had their own stories to tell about him. The loss was more than that of a past president, but of a man who had provided hope and moral leadership. A man who was so much more than a political leader; he was a philosopher, a dissident, a playwright and a man who stood by his convictions. For his humanistic beliefs and writings, he spent nearly five years in prison.

In 1978 in his seminal and provocative essay, "The Power of the Powerless," he wrote:

The real question is whether a brighter future is really always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it.

That is a question I think about often, whether here at home in the U.S. watching the evening news or in Eastern Chad with Darfuri refugees. It is a piercing question that requires honest reflection on our own lives and what we do to help transform the lives of the powerless.

This is the quintessential Havel -- asking penetrating questions, looking at the world in a different way, taking responsibility, and being hopeful. He did not stop asking these questions as president or in the years after his retirement. He was aware of human frailty -- and the personal difficulty we have in really standing up and taking responsibility. His life as an artist, a dissident and a politician reflected different years of his life but what made him unique was his ability to integrate all three. As the last president of the Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, he brought his artistic and moral sensibilities to public office. He wrote his own speeches and they were bold attempts to help people look at the world in different ways.

Havel has been described as a reticent, modest, honest, courageous and a Renaissance man -- a man filled with a moral vision of what the quality of life should be for all people. Even in the midst of the political realities of serving as president, Havel never lost sight of the larger questions facing humanity.

In an address he gave at Independence Hall on July 4, 1994 on receiving the Philadelphia Liberty Medal he asked those present to think about life and politics in a different way:

Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be a universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as the imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence.

Some political pundits viewed him as naïve. Indeed Havel was different but certainly not naïve. In a world filled with so many politicians who cannot see the larger picture of humanity and take up our time with verbose, insulting and meaningless rhetoric that demeans the human spirit; Havel was a political leader who tried to call on the best of us, to see the miracle of life, to understand what really is at stake.

Havel has left behind a powerful legacy. A legacy that leadership matters evolve out of values that hold human existence as sacred; a legacy that is anchored in a belief that there can be a brighter future if we make the right choices; a legacy that calls on each of us to take responsibility for creating a world that is more safe, humane and just. Havel knew that political leaders and their promises come and go; but what remains is the will of people and their commitment to selecting leaders who indeed will have dreams and visions that transcend the partisan political interests.

Talking about miracles, as he did at Independence Hall, is not a formula for political success. For Havel the miracles he referred to were the miracles we as humans can make happen. Perhaps the world was not ready to listen to Havel; are we ready now?