Unladylike whistle hurts first lady Propriety: Vaclav Havel's new wife is being criticized for lacking the dignity befitting the president of the Czech Republic. She publicly whistled at (booed) an opposition member.

Sun Journal

January 27, 1998|By David Rocks | David Rocks,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Viewed from afar, Vaclav Havel's narrow margin of victory may have been the most notable feature of his re-election last Tuesday, but the microscope of Czech politics has chosen instead to focus on a piercing, two-fingered whistle.

Havel won re-election to the Czech presidency by the narrowest margin possible, which many observers say damaged his prestige and will weaken him in his second and final five-year term. But when his wife of one year, Dagmar Havlova, put her fingers in her mouth and whistled in response to a speech by a right-wing politician who had sharply criticized Havel, the president's reputation may have suffered far more.

In the Czech Republic, it should be noted, a whistle connotes not admiration but derision.

"A lady simply shouldn't act that way," says parliamentary Deputy Anna Roeschova, summing up the feelings of many Czechs. "Whistling like that might belong at a football match, but not at a session of Parliament. In my eyes, she's not a lady. She might be 'first,' but she's not a lady."

While Havel's devotees abroad have barely noted his marriage to the 44-year-old actress, many of his supporters at home have noticed little else lately -- and most don't like what they see.

A recent opinion poll found that two-thirds of Czechs had lost respect for Havel as a direct result of his new wife's behavior, and nearly half felt that she had had a negative effect on his work.

In terms of public opinion, the marriage had an inauspicious beginning. The president, 61, married Dagmar Veskrnova in a secret ceremony shortly before the first anniversary of the death by cancer of his first wife, Olga. (Their married names became Havlova in keeping with the Slavic custom of adding ova to the first letters of a husband's last name.)

At the time, Havel himself was recovering from surgery in which half of his right lung had been removed to eliminate a cancerous tumor. While Dagmar Havlova was lauded for remaining at Havel's bedside day and night during the weeks he spent in the hospital, the couple was roundly criticized for tying the knot so soon after his first wife's death.

Dagmar Havlova's most recent faux pas, the whistle, came after Havel's re-election during a special joint session of the two houses of the Czech Parliament. Throughout the 10-hour meeting, deputies from the far-right, nationalist Republican Party had relentlessly attacked the president.

Then, just after Havel was finally chosen in a second ballot, Deputy Jan Vik, a Republican leader, stood up to take one last shot. The Republicans, he said, would not recognize the result because their leader and presidential candidate, Miroslav Sladek, was in jail on charges of spreading racial hatred and thus was not able to cast his vote. Had Sladek voted, Vik said, Havel's re-election would at a minimum have required another round of voting.

"Mr. Havel, you should be ashamed," Vik concluded.

Thereupon, Havlova -- sitting in the back of the ornate Spanish Hall of Prague Castle -- let out her now-famous whistle.

Since then, television news programs, radio broadcasts and newspapers have produced dozens of stories and commentaries about the first lady's whistle. Old women have clucked about it over tea, and parliamentarians have debated its propriety.

"It's unforgivable that the first lady should whistle like that," reader Jaroslav Jaros wrote to the daily Mlada Fronta Dnes. "Mrs. Havlova should be ashamed of herself."

"Our public is used to a first lady who maintains a quiet dignity," says sociologist Stanislav Hampl. "There's always this comparison with Olga, and Dagmar comes off worse, because she doesn't fulfil the ideal of the dignified wife."

Try as she might, Dagmar Havlova can't seem to step out of the shadow of her husband's first wife. Although Olga Havlova was older and less glamorous than her successor, Czechs regarded the first wife highly both for her charity work and her devotion to her husband through the long, dark years of political dissidence, constant secret police surveillance and frequent imprisonment.

While newspapers wrote about Olga Havlova in almost reverential terms -- and then usually in connection with some charitable act she had performed -- tabloid newspapers attacked the new first lady for her hairdo, her clothes and her demeanor.

While the Havels were on a vacation in the Canary Islands last month, the country's most popular television station led its evening newscast with an item noting that their dog, Dula, had been left behind. Dula, it seems, had been the late Olga Havlova's dog, and -- the report intimated -- Dagmar Havlova had been responsible for Dula's banishment from the presidential household.

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