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March 26th, 2017

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Great leader, little country

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Oct. 2, 2014

  Great leader, little country Vaclav Havel by Martin Sutovec, Slovakia

November 19. That's the date a bust of Vaclav Havel is to be dedicated in National Statuary Hall at this country's Capitol, and it's perfect timing -- for November 19 will also be the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution he led and embodied in his native Czechoslovakia.

Oh, the euphoria of those days when the Cold War was drawing to a close and the Soviet Union with it, and one after the other its captive nations were breaking their chains -- none more peacefully, successfully and triumphantly than the one this playwright turned dissident led in his little country.

Americans will remember November 19 as the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, our second Declaration of Independence delivered on a battlefield in the midst of a tragic civil war. Lincoln's words, like the nation itself, would prove enduring. The high resolve he expressed that day in 1863 remains ever relevant -- "that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

After this bust of Vaclav Havel is dedicated, it will join the figures of Lincoln and Washington -- and those of other champions of freedom, like Winston Churchill -- on permanent display at the Capitol, for the size and power of a country is no sure sign of greatness. Or even survival. Quite the contrary. Tyrannies can be powerful, yet the powerless can make them tremble. See the sad examples of Moammar Gadhafi, Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad and a long line of Middle Eastern despots going back to old Pharaoh himself.

But this single writer from a little country put together after the First World War had changed the map of Europe personified "the power of the powerless," as he put it. Playwright, prisoner and president, in that order, Vaclav Havel wrote his own script for his own nation, and for others. For he was a great leader of a small country, unlike too many small leaders of great countries today.

Vaclav Havel would go from prison to the presidency of Czechoslovakia, yet remain himself. He accepted his successes, paramount among them freeing his country without bloodshed, with the same equanimity with which he accepted his failures. Like its later division, just as peaceful, into two: the Czech Republic and Slovakia, each of which now seems more united with the other in spirit than they were when they were one country. Which is another of Vaclav Havel's triumphs, for he set the harmonious tone that has guided both countries since their separation.

How did he summon the lifelong self-discipline to do all he did? Maybe because he had a quality that eludes little men who find themselves at the head of great nations: simplicity. He was a hero who disdained any air of heroism, a hero without histrionics, a playwright who loathed theatrics, an intellectual who thought there was something innately suspect about the very idea of a successful intellectual, and a politician who may never have given a pompous, self-centered speech in his life. A rare bird indeed.

If you seek his true monument, you will not find it in a statue but in his own words, which still serve as a sure guide to the rest of us, including a passage that has become my own favorite over the years, for it has proven its worth and wisdom time and again since he uttered them:

"When a person tries to act in accordance with his conscience, when he tries to speak the truth, when he tries to behave like a citizen, even in conditions where citizenship is degraded, it won't necessarily lead anywhere, but it might. There's one thing, however, that will never lead anywhere, and that is speculating that such behavior will lead somewhere."

The blowhards in politics are always explaining how terribly complicated the world is, and how they have to balance ends and means, for politics is the art of the possible. But that's true only if the politician's idea of what is possible is sufficiently limited, his standards sufficiently low, and his rationalizations sufficiently slick to justify his leadership or lack of same. It takes no great art to compromise principle, just a certain moral slovenliness.

Vaclav Havel proved politics can be the art of the impossible, or what certainly looked impossible before he attempted it. For who would have thought his little country, seized by foreign dictators of the right and left alike with equal rapacity, first Hitler and then Stalin, would succeed in breaking the Soviet Union's iron grip? Later the whole Soviet empire itself would break down and fall apart. Impossible. Yet it happened.

This playwright-president of a little country somehow defied the great Soviet power. Even more impressive, he did it simply, without fanfare. He led a velvet revolution, the kind that lasts rather than the violent model that only gives way to more violence. See the fate of so many hopes that blossomed with the Arab Spring. And that now wither with the coming of the Arab Winter.

Vaclav Havel, dissenter extraordinaire, declined even to call himself a dissenter. He may have looked like one to the outside world, he would explain, but inwardly he was just doing what anyone with common sense and a conscience would. He had no choice if he was going to live with himself, and act with the dignity befitting any human being.

Leaders of great nations may leave behind biographies/memoirs/self-justifications as widely circulated as they are unread, and as lengthy as they are unconvincing. The memory of Vaclav Havel continues to inspire. Mainly because of the simplicity of his principles and his following them so naturally. Without pomp and circumstance, just a natural dignity.

Politicians come and go. But great leaders have an afterlife that illumines the path of future generations. See the still shining examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and, yes, Vaclav Havel.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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