Always on the horizon

February 04, 2003

ON OCT. 27, 1989, the police in communist Czechoslovakia hauled in a red-headed, chain-smoking, truth-speaking playwright whom they viewed as a threat to the regime. Less than two months later, that playwright was elected president of what had by that time become an ex-communist country. "History has accelerated," Vaclav Havel told a joint session of the U.S. Congress that winter.

Mr. Havel -- who entered office as a rumpled dissident, fond of rock music and of making himself intolerable to authority -- stepped down on Sunday. After 13 years on the job, he had become the grand old man of democratically elected world leaders; you'd have to turn to the likes of Saddam Hussein or Fidel Castro to find anyone with longer tenure than his.

He has been a treasure that the Czechs have shared with the world. Here was a president who spoke modestly, who made it a point not to lie, who strived to exercise what he understatedly called "good taste" in matters of state and politics. He wasn't an effective deal-maker or arm-twister, and countries need a little of that. But he was able to bring the powers of a playwright's imagination and the honesty of a man unbroken by the Soviet system to bear on the political realm, and the world was better because of it.

Mr. Havel had had plenty of time to think during his sojourns in communist prisons and on his official state job in a boiler room. That gave him a leg up on Western politicians. "A person who cannot move and live a normal life because he is pinned under a boulder has more time to think about his hopes than someone who is not trapped in this way," he said.

Then events carried him forward -- or maybe he carried the events. He compared himself to a book reviewer who was suddenly forced to write his own novels.

The politics of post-Soviet Eastern Europe have been pretty dreary, and the enthusiasms of 1989 soon faded. History decelerated. Some of the old dissidents went back and crawled under that boulder again. Mr. Havel stayed in the ring; that was harder. With clarity and tact, he very publicly stuck to his ideals of liberty and decency.

"The way of a truly moral politics is neither simple nor easy," he pointed out, and democracy is always on the horizon. Well, that just makes the trip more of a challenge. Vaclav Havel, more than anyone of his generation, set the standard for meeting it.

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