Death of Two Leaders: Timing Is Everything

Well, as best I can tell, Kim Jong-il is still dead. Ditto for the Senate-passed version of a plan to extend the federal government payroll tax cut. Although unlike Kim, the tax proposal will most likely come back to life once voters recognize that for many this latest Congressional gridlock will amount to what will certainly look, feel and smell like a tax increase.

Oh, boy. A tax hike in an election year. Woot! Sarah, come on down. Everything is forgiven. (See NYT — “Palin Says It’s Not Too Late for Folks to Jump In.”) I digress.

Back to Kim. I know that during the slow holiday news cycle his death gives the TV Talking Heads something to opine constantly about — even though they aren’t offering any new insights about what’s going to happen in North Korea. Still, it’s too bad that Kim croaked over the weekend because that overshadowed the passing of another world leader who merits attention: Vaclav Havel.

Havel was acclaimed writer, but more importantly, he was a dissident and then government leader who essentially ousted the Communists from Czechoslovakia and helped set the stage for the Europe Spring that crumbled the Berlin Wall.

Here’s from the NYT, “Czechs’ Dissident Conscience, Turned President“:

Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer and dissident whose eloquent dissections of Communist rule helped to destroy it in revolutions that brought down the Berlin Wall and swept Mr. Havel himself into power, died on Sunday. He was 75.

His assistant, Sabina Tancevova, said Mr. Havel died at his country house in northern Bohemia.

A Czech Embassy spokesman in Paris, Michal Dvorak, said in a statement that Mr. Havel, a heavy smoker for decades who almost died during treatment for lung cancer in 1996, had been suffering from severe respiratory ailments since the spring.

A shy yet resilient, unfailingly polite but dogged man who articulated the power of the powerless, Mr. Havel spent five years in and out of Communist prisons, lived for two decades under close secret-police surveillance and endured the suppression of his plays and essays. He served 14 years as president, wrote 19 plays, inspired a film and a rap song and remained one of his generation’s most seductively nonconformist writers.

All the while, Mr. Havel came to personify the soul of the Czech nation.

His moral authority and his moving use of the Czech language cast him as the dominant figure during Prague street demonstrations in 1989 and as the chief behind-the-scenes negotiator who brought about the end of more than 40 years of Communist rule and the peaceful transfer of power known as the Velvet Revolution, a revolt so smooth that it took just weeks to complete, without a single shot fired.

He was chosen as post-Communist Czechoslovakia’s first president — a role he insisted was more duty than aspiration — and after the country split in January 1993, he became president of the Czech Republic. He linked the country firmly to the West, clearing the way for the Czech Republic to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999 and the European Union five years later.

Both as a dissident and as a national leader, Mr. Havel (pronounced VAHTS-lahv HAH-vell) impressed the West as one of the most important political thinkers in Central Europe. He rejected the notion, posited by reform-minded Communist leaders like Alexander Dubcek in his own country, and years later by Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, that Communist rule could be made more humane.

His star status and personal interests drew world leaders to Prague, including the Dalai Lama, with whom Mr. Havel meditated for hours, and President Bill Clinton, who, during a state visit in 1994, joined a saxophone jam session at Mr. Havel’s favorite jazz club.

Even after Mr. Havel retired in 2003, leaders sought him out, including President Obama. At their meeting in March 2009, Mr. Havel warned of the perils of limitless hope being projected onto a leader. Disappointment, he noted, could boil over into anger and resentment. Mr. Obama replied that he was becoming acutely aware of the possibility.

Mr. Obama said that he was deeply saddened by Mr. Havel’s death. “His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon,” he said Sunday in a statement.

Articulating Discontent

It was as a dissident that Mr. Havel most clearly championed the ideals of a civil society. He helped found Charter 77, the longest enduring human rights movement in the former Soviet bloc, and keenly articulated the lasting humiliations that Communism imposed on the individual.

In his now iconic 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” which circulated in underground editions in Czechoslovakia and was smuggled to other Warsaw Pact countries and to the West, Mr. Havel foresaw that the opposition could eventually prevail against the totalitarian state.

Mr. Havel, a child of bourgeois privilege whose family lost its wealth when the Communists came to power in 1948, first became active in the Writers Union in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s, when his chief target was not Communism so much as it was the “reform Communism” that many were seeking.

During the Prague Spring of 1968, the brief period when reform Communists, led by Mr. Dubcek, believed that “socialism with a human face” was possible, Mr. Havel argued that Communism could never be tamed.

OK. I know that Kim Jong-il had a stockpile of nukes and was playing the game of life with at least one loose screw.

Still, Vaclav Havel, and others like him, helped shape Europe and the world through their courage and belief in freedom. Too bad that message got lost this week.

Timing is everything.

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