Watson: The character of a president

Source: The Salem News / www.salemnews.com / By Brian T. Watson /

It has been nearly five years since Vaclav Havel died. He was the first president of Czechoslovakia after the fall of the communist government there in 1989.

This year, I have closely followed the American presidential primary candidates as they have campaigned, spoken, debated, and postured. One of them, Donald Trump, who in July will officially become the Republican nominee for president, is shockingly deficient in nearly every attribute that is important to being either a capable president or developed human being.

Vaclav Havel was born in 1936 into a Czechoslovakia that was soon to be occupied by the Nazis. After World War II, the country slid — and was forced — into the control of the Soviet Union. From 1948 on, Czechoslovakia was officially communist, with nationalized industries and enterprises, and an economy and a political system designed, controlled and monitored by authoritarian state systems.

In 1950, when Havel was only 14, he was labeled by the government as suspicious because his family was wealthy and “bourgeois,” possibly enemies of the state. He was prohibited from attending normal schools and could only attend evening classes with other young men who were required to work during the day.

Of course, isolating this grouping of misfits, iconoclasts, questioners and artists had the ironic and inevitable effect of stimulating their natural curiosity and intellectual growth. The young men — in a group called the “Thirty-Sixers” — debated politics, economics, philosophy, poetry, art and theater. They read Kant, Hegel, Aquinas, Whitman, Halas, Biebl, Shakespeare and other notable thinkers, and challenged themselves to develop attitudes and knowledge about the human condition — in all its manifestations.

By the time Havel was 20, he was already established within the Prague intellectual class, and he was thinking and writing seriously about the relationship of the individual to society, and the relationship of the individual to freedom and the need for governing structures.

He was precocious, but there is no doubt that the clash of his natural artistic sensibilities with the reality of an oppressive totalitarian state focused his desire to understand the potential and limits of human nature, power, hypocrisy, fairness and societal organization.

Through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, as Havel wrote plays and essays, he continued to explore those subjects, and increasingly he critiqued the communist regime. More strongly than anything else, he believed in honesty, responsibility, honor and moral standards. He found the Czech government grossly lacking in all of those.

Behind all of Havel’s thinking was a deep and profound grasp of the large potential for development in every human being. It would not be exaggerating to say that he yearned for a world designed to facilitate the highest levels of growth, creativity, learning and ethics across all societies.

And importantly — and with some degree of worry — he saw that it was what ordinary citizens could learn that would ultimately determine what path a society would follow. That is a large part of why he wrote plays and essays that probed the themes of conformity, materialism, duplicity, dogma, meaning, and the power of words.

Havel knew that words could be used powerfully to confuse or abuse people, or to help people see truths and important realities. Words can be used to subjugate people, to keep them stupid, and to divide them against each other.

Havel hadn’t sought to become president in 1989. It was an organic development, the result of a public that had for 30 years observed and listened to the honest and illuminating words of this special man.

At great cost to himself — he was jailed numerous times, once for nearly — four years — he repeatedly explained to Czech citizens that only their responsibility and willingness to see clearly their choices could transform their society. In 1989, a grateful and inspired public finally stood up to the system and aspired to be better.

Havel was president for 13 years. He remained an intellectual and humanistic leader, always challenging citizens to be bigger, more curious, more tolerant and more honest and reflective about every aspect of life.

In a 1990 speech to the U.S. Congress, he said, “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility.”

Havel possessed an extraordinary character, a disciplined intellect, and a humility that made him a masterful and beloved president. His respect for others — no matter how different from himself — was unfailing. He modeled for others what he asked of them.

When I think about a man like Havel, and the kind of president and leader he was, with the selflessness, kindness and thoughtfulness that he exhibited, and then I think about Donald Trump, and the kind of person he is, the contrast is shocking. I wonder if our nation could possibly elect such a small man as Trump.

Trump asks nothing of himself, and he asks nothing of us. To the contrary, he encourages us to be as small and ignorant as we can be, concerned only with getting our due, whatever we think that may be.
Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist.

The Vaclav Havel Center