Kevin Klose, Part 1: Havel told me RFE in Prague worth three NATO divisions

Kevin Klose, photo: Ian Willoughby

Kevin Klose is serving a second term as president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, an American-funded international broadcaster based in Prague since the mid-1990s. Mr. Klose oversaw the station’s move here from Munich on the invitation of President Václav Havel, before later going on to head National Public Radio in the US for a decade. In part one of a two-part interview, he discusses RFE/RL’s search for a new identity in the post-Cold War era and its move east.

Kevin Klose,  photo: Ian Willoughby
But first I asked Mr. Klose about his long pre-radio career at the Washington Post, for which he was Moscow correspondent in the Brezhnev era. It must, I put it to him, have been an exciting time to be at the Post.

“Oh, yes. I started actually in 1967 and I was there for 25 years. A great newspaper, a great newsroom, a great publishing family, the Grahams. And the legendary editor Ben Bradley, who hired me.

“There was a marvellous arc of constantly moving upward in terms of our capacity to report high quality news, both locally and nationally and foreign news.

“The paper was extraordinarily profitable. It was the heyday of this kind of profitable quality journalism for newspapers in the United States.”

You were there at the time of Watergate. Did you work directly with Woodward and Bernstein? Did you work closely with those guys?

“I did, actually more closely just before Watergate. I was Maryland editor when Watergate started percolating. But I had worked with Bernstein earlier as one of his editors.

“Yes, Watergate was extraordinarily complicated and demanding and took tremendous resources and resilience on the part of the people who were doing the direct work, which was Woodward and Bernstein, Barry Sussman, and a number of other people.”

Also I guess [it took] personal bravery.

“Courage, I would say. Not physical courage, but smart courage, to keep going. And for the newspaper. As we know, President Nixon was not a fan of the Washington Post specifically, and not a fan of that type of journalism in general.

“So there was a great deal of concern as the landscape got darker and darker around the revelations of what the White House staffs had been doing under Nixon.

“There was concern that there could be efforts to, in effect, decoy the two reporters in some fashion into something that might put them in legal jeopardy. And there were also concerns for the general staff of the paper.

Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon in 1973
“At the same time, I might say, the Vietnam War, which had been going for the Americans since the mid ‘60s really… at the same time, we had been sending reporters, voluntarily, to cover the war.

“What came out of that was great courage, great commitment. It deepened and made a much more resourceful and a fuller, richer cadre of journalists at the paper.

“Because doing that kind of reporting is like no other. When you come back out of it, you bring skills that you wouldn’t otherwise have had perhaps. So the whole cadre was I think a much deeper, fuller cadre.”

You were later Moscow bureau chief at the end of the 1970s, in the Brezhnev era. How did you find reporting from, to paraphrase your book from that time [Russia and the Russians: Inside the Closed Society] inside a closed society?

“We arrived in Moscow in ‘77, my wife and I and our three kids, who were then school age. And it was very quiet in Moscow. A huge city but it was ruled and governed as it if were a city on the edge of a siege.

“At night the lighting was very low. There was a dimness and darkness about the place. It’s entirely transformed now but then it really was the SOVIET capital – that’s what it said.

“Finding stories was extremely difficult. One would have had to have been there for many, many years to develop the kinds of sources that were much easier to find in a world where journalism… although people may not like journalism, it isn’t censored by the specific intervention of the governments, generally.

“I will just tell you one funny anecdote. One day, I was at the Soviet Foreign Ministry, one of the Stalin-designed buildings in central Moscow.

“I look down this darkened corridor and here came Andrei Gromyko, then the foreign minister. He’d been foreign minister under Brezhnev and for a lot of years and had gone to every conference with the Americans and had had a great career of stonewalling.

“He came down towards me with a younger aide next to him. He was dressed as he always had been seen in public, in a black suit, white shirt, grey tie. He had a very dour expression on his face.

RFE studio in Munich,  photo: archive of RFE
“As he came abreast of me I put out my hand and, in my perfect Russian, announced that I was delighted to meet him and was the Washington Post’s Moscow bureau chief.

“He turned around and looked at me with this wry smile. Ah, he said [puts on Russian accent], Mr. Klose, you represent Washington Post, which every day prints the truth and some days prints a little more than the truth!

“Which I thought was a perfect, wonderful, wry Russian way of saying he admired it but he didn’t admire everything we did [laughs].”

In the early 1990s you became the head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. I presume in those days, after the fall of communism, the station was looking for a new role?

“Yes. It had been in Munich from the 1950s on and the Wall had come down. My predecessor Eugene Pell, a brilliant president of Radio Free Europe, had, when the Wall came down… one of the first bureaus that we were able to open was in Prague. Bureaus were opened in Prague and Budapest and Warsaw.

“It was clear as integration occurred between East and West that the radios really needed to move into the region.

“President Havel sent a letter to President Clinton and invited the radios in, early in President Clinton’s first year in the White House, in 1993.

“There were management changes. Mr. Pell retired and I succeeded him after some months. It was clear to me that we had to move East and we had this marvellous invitation.

“We had a team come out here in 1994, very quietly, and it started working with the Czech government. As we know, President Havel had the former parliamentary building in mind.

“When we got approval from the Clinton administration to do it, we made the move very quickly.

“We’re a private company. It’s a very interesting enterprise. It’s chartered as a private, non-profit company in the US. So we have a lot of freedom to do things but we have to have government approval, because we live on US federal grants from the federal government.

Former RFE building in Prague,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“So we got all the approvals and we moved here in 1995. It was transformational for us to be here, and it’s been so ever since.”

Also I guess there was a kind of historical irony in that you were occupying a space that previously was used to rubberstamp Communist Party decisions, the parliament of the era.

“Yes. I will tell you, we were extremely aware of the history of that parliament. And there were others who were extremely aware of it.

“One wonderful American ambassador, William Luers, who was ambassador during the time of Soviet domination and Comm Party monopoly, came back.

“He had visited the parliamentary chambers many times as ambassador. He came back shortly after we moved in. He wanted to come over and see me, I had known him, but he wanted to see what we were doing.

“We walked into the building, we walked into the parliamentary chamber on the ground floor, which was the big parliamentary chamber. And there he saw, in place of what had been the Comm Party banner or something on the wall, there was Liberty’s Bell. He was extremely moved.

“I will tell you, I had never thought that the Communist hold on Eastern Europe would [snaps fingers] go so quickly and I’m sure he didn’t thinks so either. We were both looking at it that way and we were stunned to see it again. It was a very moving moment.”

Do you have any particularly strong memories of working with Václav Havel on that move?

“I only saw him several times. He was very busy and of course we were completely engaged in just getting installed here and getting our people in.

“We brought in about 300 people from Munich and finding housing, getting all that set up, getting the building functioning for all these language services, was no small job. There were endless days and nights of work.

“So I didn’t see him very much. But we did a ceremonial reception in September of ’95. It was very interesting. He came with his security team and we had a security room for them.

“They wouldn’t let me in to see him, but I finally got in and the security room was filled with smoke, because they were all smoking [laughs]. And I thought, this is why it’s secure.

“But he said to me, you know, Radio Free Europe in Prague is worth three NATO divisions.

RFE building in Prague,  photo: archive of RFE
“Later my successor at RFE Tom Dine told me that President Havel had told him that he had three ideas that were to create the integration of the Czech Republic into the Western alliance. First, get RFE here. Two, get NATO membership. And three, EU. One, two, three. That was his committed strategy. It’s happened, and I’m very pleased that we’re here.”

Next week in part two of this interview, Kevin Klose discusses his years at NPR, the state of the radio industry and the activities of RFE/RL today.