Paul Greenberg

Power is no sure guide to greatness. Or even survival. Quite the contrary. Tyrants can be powerful, yet the powerless can make them tremble. See Moammar Gadhafi, Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad and a long line of Middle Eastern despots going back to old Pharaoh himself.

One writer from a little country put together after the First World War personified "the power of the powerless." That was Vaclav Havel's phrase for the phenomenon, which even now is on display in Egypt and Yemen and who knows where next.

Playwright and president, in that order, Vaclav Havel wrote his own script for his nation and others. He was a great leader of a small country -- so great his example inspired admiration around the world. May it also inspire imitation.

Vaclav Havel went from prison to the presidency of Czechoslovakia, yet remained 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 in two between the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

How did he summon the lifelong self-discipline to do all that? 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 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.

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 standards of what is possible are low enough and his rationalizations slick enough. It takes no 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 system itself would break down and fall apart. Impossible. Yet it happened.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.