Bill Clinton: Today Václav Havel’s ideas are more relevant than ever

Bill Clinton (Photo: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The former US president Bill Clinton first visited the Czech Republic in 1994, offering the countries of the former communist bloc support and assistance on the road to democracy. It was a historic, trust-building visit in many ways, which saw the birth of a special friendship between the then US head of state and the Czech Republic’s first president Vaclav Havel. This week Bill Clinton gave Czech Radio’s Washington correspondent Lenka Kabrhelová an interview in which he recalled his visit to Prague, his admiration for Vaclav Havel, and how he played the saxophone at a Prague jazz club.

Bill Clinton  (Photo: Gage Skidmore,  CC BY-SA 3.0)
Václav Havel often reminisced meeting with seven American presidents but he always spoke of you as of a true friend. How do you remember him?

“I had an unfair advantage over the others because I was working closely with Madeleine Albright, I named her ambassador to the United Nations. I think the first time I met him was when she had a dinner at her house and invited me to come and take Hillary with me. Václav and his wife were there. It was a great night. I was a huge admirer of his because I had gone to the Czech Republic as a young man in the first week of 1970. 24 years to the week before my first trip as president. I had a friend at Oxford with whom I played basketball, whose parents have supported the Prague Spring. I was always interested in Czechoslovakia and I always watched Havel closely from afar. I felt we would be friends from the beginning and I knew that I admired him.”

Why did you think that you would be friends? Was there a big difference between the Havel that you knew from afar and the Havel whom you came to know in person? Did he surprise you by anything?

“He was more laid back and full of life than a lot of politicians allow themselves to be. I liked him because he loved music; he liked jazz, he liked rock & roll. When I invited him to the White House for a state dinner I said ‘You know we have entertainment after the state dinner, what do you want?’, he said, ‘I want Lou Reed, he helped the Velvet Revolution.’ So we got Lou Reed, Lou Reed literally came out of retirement to perform for him. And he did a terrific job.”

“I liked him because he was not a predictable ideologue, he didn’t trust any ideologues. I liked that about him. He realized that democracy was a state of mind instead of a way of doing things. That it was more than the absence of Communism and more than just having a vote. That it was about human rights and minority rights as well as majority rule. About building a set of alliances with like-minded people. He was incredibly smart about how politics ought to work. He came out almost as a playwright – as the key observer of human nature. How human frailties were amplified in dictatorial systems and tended to be offset by others wakened strengths in democratic systems.”

What do you think made him such an exceptional personality? There are a lot of people who would give their lives for freedom and democracy. How was he different?

“I think he would be the first to say that he was, for all the suffering he had under communism, smiled on by fate. He was prominent in his nation. He had what young people in America would call street credit, street credibility with the average person, because he’d been imprisoned. All during the Communist era he continued to write his plays which highlighted the absurdities of living in a highly bureaucratic, centralized, organized system with not very much freedom and not enough voice for ordinary people. And I think ordinary people identified with him, he was famous, if you will. And I think more importantly, he identified with them. He was an artist, so he thought the joys of ordinary life were superior to the brief fleeting experience of power.” Havel had, as you said, many roles. He was an artist, a playwright, but also a human rights campaigner, a dissident, a prisoner and then also a president and a politician.

“He understood that this was not going to be a miracle. That there was a total difference between ‘not being Communist’ and ‘being fully democratic’.”

Which one of these roles do you think suited him the best?

“I can’t say because I only know him as president and afterwards. I think his past life was a preparation to be the first democratically elected president of the Czech Republic. You wanted someone who would try to unite the country and bring the country strength by opening it to the right kind of influences. I tried to help him with NATO, I supported the admission of the Czech Republic to the European Union. I tried to support its economic transformation.”

“He understood that this was not going to be a miracle. That there was a total difference between ‘not being Communist’ and ‘being fully democratic’. That it would be a process and a debate and that the country would go through. You might lose some of the debates on the way. But still he thought that the important thing was the direction of the country. If you’re moving in the right direction you take two steps forward, one back. And you don’t have a heart attack because you’re still free. As long as people are free, he believed that progress was possible. That’s pretty much what I think, so I loved it. He never stopped trying to enjoy every day, which is a very important lesson for people who believe that power and money are the only things that matter.”

“He took me to that nightclub in Prague when I came there. And I was having such a good time because I wanted to experience, what it was like to go to a place like that, a center of your political activity. It came out from an emotional place as well as an intellectual place. And then all of a sudden Havel calls my name and he hands me a sax made in the Czech Republic, which in the old days of the Warsaw pact in a planned economy, they only planned to make saxophones for military bands. So now they were trying to make saxophones which people would actually buy. And it was quite good; it had a little heart on it that was his logo.”

Bill Clinton and Vaclav Havel at a Prague jazz club,  photo: YouTube
“Then they asked me to play with the band. And the most wonderful thing happened. This little guy, much shorter than me, came up with a baritone saxophone which is a very big saxophone. That one was as big as he was. And he had little glasses and we started playing. He was roughly, ten times better than I was, way better than I was. And I said, “Where did you come here from?’ He said ‘Milwaukee’ He was from Wisconsin! And I said, ‘What’s your day job?’. He said, ‘I’m an accountant’ He had all those little pencils in his pocket, and he could play unbelievably well. And I asked ‘Why did you come?’ And he said, ‘Because my country needed me more than Milwaukee did. Democracies need accountants; someone has to keep track of the money. But at night, I do my first love.’ And he came and played. We played a couple of tunes together, it was wonderful. Havel meanwhile was playing the tambourine. He was better with words than keeping time with the beat. But he was having so much fun. He later sent me a CD of this episode we had and I still take it out and play it every now and then. Just listening for Havel’s tambourine.”

How much were you surprised by the development of this visit? If I remember correctly, Havel took you and your team to a Czech pub for a beer. Was it unusual for you?

“Well I liked that because I was what we call in this country a grassroots politician. I like to get out and mix with the people. And I found it very difficult once I got secret service protection and once I made some very powerful forces men in our country angry when we banned assault weapons and big military ammunition clips. Secret service and I had to be more circumspect. I like to go out every morning on the mall, just an ordinary citizen. Anyone could run with me and we would talk and I like that. So I liked going to the pub with Havel.”

“He was more laid back and full of life than a lot of politicians allow themselves to be. I liked him because he loved music; he liked jazz, he liked rock & roll.”

Havel said – and I think it was a part of an interview dedicated to the project of oral history about your work as a president – that out of all American presidents he’d met, with you he felt the most as with a friend. But he also said that from unknown reasons he felt shy with you. Did you notice that?

“Yes but I thought it was just his way. I tried not to make him shy, I loved being with him. I loved every minute of it. When they were trying to take me out of office here, he came and stayed and defended me. Mandela did, the later king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah did, King Hussein did. All of them were basically blacked out on the television because the American media were trying to make a big deal out of this and all these leaders were saying you must be crazy. Havel was the only one who made the evening news because he found a funny way of saying it. He said, ‘America has many faces. I like most of them, but some of them I don’t understand. I prefer not to comment on things I don’t understand.” It was so funny they put him on the news. All these other guys who were great to me, but they couldn’t make the news. Well Havel did.”

Havel also remembered one situation – I think it might have been the one you mentioned at the beginning – when Madeleine Albright organized a dinner at her home in Georgetown for you, your wife Hillary Clinton and Václav Havel. You talked about NATO. Do you remember the circumstances of that conversation?

“Yes, I was for NATO expansion and he wanted it badly. And I thought it was very important for Europe and United States to embrace the Czech Republic, also Hungary and Poland and eventually the Baltics and others. My goal, when Yeltsin was there, I thought someday we might have a joint alliance that would even include Russia. When we persuaded the Ukrainians to give up their nuclear weapons and send them to Russia, Yeltsin signed an agreement, that he would never violate the territorial integrity of Ukraine. What we were trying to do was to create a Europe that was united, democratic and free for the first time since the rise of nations on the European continent. And I thought, basically, that Czech Republic was leading the way because it had the best economy of the three states in Central Europe that were the obvious candidates for entering NATO.”

Hillary Clinton,  photo: archive of US Department
“Nobody thought of Havel as a warmonger. They thought he’s doing this for security and to keep the peace. That’s mostly what we talked about that night. About what Europe would look like ten, twenty years from now. He was very sensitive to the fact that after so long on the other side of the Iron Curtain and as an authoritarian centralized bureaucracy, a path to a vibrant human rights oriented dynamic country could not possibly be a straight path. There would be lots of upheaval and dislocation and psychological uncertainty. He got all that. He wanted to do this NATO expansion as soon as possible. And we did. The first one in 1997 we voted to do that. And of course it’s continued to build since. And I think in the light of subsequent events, particularly in Russia and Ukraine it was clearly the right thing to do.”

You mentioned talking about how Europe will look like in 20 years. What were your predictions then? Did they come true?

“No they didn’t come true. Well they did and didn’t. The movement of Germany to the center of Europe away from the periphery, to cooperation rather than conflict and dominance. I thought that would happen because of what Kohl did and because Merkel believed in it, Schroeder did too. That was good, I thought that would happen. I did not foresee that Hungary would say ‘maybe democracy is not so good for us, we should be more like Russia’. But I understand how it happened. As long as Putin is there I thought they would move awkwardly consistently toward a more democratic society. I thought they would be in a sphere of human rights and that the Russian state would modernize in a more equal way. They are very gifted in so many things, especially computer technologies, we now know. But I thought it would be put in different uses. So I was wrong about that in the short run. But this is a long struggle you know.”

“We need Havels all over the world today to live as he did, writing those plays, pushing those ideas, reminding people they are better than to be treated as slaves or to walk around on automatic and respond to appeals to the darkest instincts.”

You talked a lot about the 1990s optimism; you mentioned it even during the visit in the Czech Republic in 1998, talked about belief in things changing for the better. Is it possible that that was just a blip?

“We won’t know until we see another twenty years go by, whether it was a blip or whether this is a blip.”

What do you think?

“I think this is a blip and that was a trend. And I think that for several reasons. The world is going more interdependent. In an interdependent world you are more able to claim the benefits of the positive factors and you’re more open to the negative forces. Because it means that there’re all kinds of things out there that cross borders. Whether they’re just little creaks or whether you have walls there. You can’t keep cyber traffic out for example.”

“Particularly after the financial crisis in 2008 it hurt so many people so badly in almost every country. The wealthiest people rebounded most quickly, they lost vast percentages of their income but they got it back in a hurry. Meanwhile the recovery was sluggish in the West and so there was a lot of dissolution. The European Union also had different problems because the common currency worked very well as long as everybody was growing. Everybody could borrow money on German interest rates and they had money to buy German products or French products or Czech products. And when it went down, it had huge impact on Greece, southern Spain, where you had the huge housing collapse, Portugal was hit hard. And many people started to question whether the EU should continue to expand or whether if they should enter the Eurozone even if they joined the European Union. And then the British people voted Brexit, something I don’t think they would do today if they had a revote, I think they’d vote to stay in.”

“But again, something like this was completely predictable. Because when you have a lot of social and economic and political change at the same time, even if you can see it going in the right direction, it’s personally disorienting. And identity for all of us is so caught up in how we classify ourselves. By nationhood, by race, by ethnicity, by religion, you name it.”

“Havel got all that. He understood that a terrible thing about totalitarian countries is that they try to wipe away all this difference. He wanted it to be able to flourish. And he was willing to gamble that in the end, free societies with human rights were the only kinds of societies that would be successful. Maybe after we’re both long gone, the days of the 1990s will still look like the harbinger of the way the world works out because decisions of diverse groups are better than decision made by homogeneous groups or lone genius. And cooperation works better than conflict. If you want to share a fraternity share responsibilities. That’s what I think will happen.”

But do you really see a path to that model? It seems today that many countries are more likely to try and isolate themselves. What has to happen to change that?

Bil Clinton,  photo: YouTube
“People have to believe and the question is will the economic and the social shortcomings be evident enough before they can take political rights away from the citizens so that they can’t make changes. That’s the key. You know these people don’t believe in what they’re doing when they stop people from voting. It’s a big effort in America to stop lots of people from voting. Big in a lot of other countries too. That’s like all these people saying ‘Okay so they don’t want what I’m selling. But I’m gonna hold on anyway’. That’s what the whole struggle during the Cold War was about. That’s what the whole Charter ’77 was about that’s what everything Havel lived for was about. Not so he can be president and be a dominant figure but so people would have a chance to live their lives.”

When you think about his work and ideas -do you see a remedy for the current situation?

“The remedy is for all of us to live as he did when times are not so good. What did he do? First, he never left. He never left, he could have left. He could have come to New York and been the toast of the city. Second, he kept working. He kept doing what he was good at and pushing for change as best he could. And third, he seemed to have a good time doing it, which gives people confidence. If you actually believe in what you’re doing. That’s what we have to do here. Nobody knows how long these swings last. But there are a very few permanent victories or defeats in political life. The question is, what is the arc of history, what is the direction. Martin Luther King said that the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice. And I believe and I hope that’s true.”

How much are you concerned by the current situation around NATO – there’s talk about a weakening of the organization?

“Everybody was worried that America would weaken the alliance because of Mr. Trump’s relationship with Mr. Putin. But once he got back home and talked to his military advisers he seemed to reaffirm it. Everybody who is looking at this knows that it’s a very good thing that we’ve got NATO. And it’s a big deterrent to violence, a big deterrent to aggression. And I suspect you’ll see the United States strongly supporting it.”

And to end with Vaclav Havel - how relevant are his ideas today?

“In some ways he’s more relevant today than he was when he was a hero of the new freedom in the Czech Republic. We need Havels all over the world today to live as he did; when he got out of prison and all through the 1980s, writing those plays, pushing those ideas, reminding people they are better than to be treated as slaves or to walk around on automatic and respond to appeals to the darkest instincts -that they should keep living for a brighter tomorrow. The life he lived, that brought him to the presidency is more relevant today and that’s what we should copy. If you think about it, there have been three people, two in my lifetime I served with, who essentially liberated their country without firing a shot. Gandhi, Mandela and Havel."

"Mandela and I were very close until he died; I went to South Africa to his funeral. He was imprisoned for 27 years. And he made a big show of putting the leaders of the parties who put him in prison in his government because he realized that democracy was about more than the majority rule. Havel got that. He had a prime minister who disagreed with him on many things when he was president. So Havel’s life and what he said, I wish everybody could read the things that he said about distrusting obsessions of all kinds. Not wanting people to be obsessed with the fact that they had the right ideology, the right ideas. Instead embracing universal values and acting according to them. That’s more important now than what it was when he served. Because he doesn’t have everybody else going in the same direction.”

“I love to remember him. Let me just say one final thing. The kindest thing he ever did for me I think was once I was in Prague and we went to dinner, just the two of us. It was a little restaurant on the river, I don’t know if I can even find it now. We just sat there and talked. And it was an incredible gift. He was out of office, free as a bird. Totally at peace and excepting the fact that the world he wanted and the Czech Republic he wanted was not going to magically appear overnight. That citizenship was a job and it was hard work and that he did his part. Everyone in his country should be grateful, but so should all the rest of us.”

This interview was made in cooperation with the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation in New York within its project Havel Conversations.