Small Country, Great Leader

Paul Greenberg

12/21/2011 11:45:00 AM - 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.

The playwright-president of a little country somehow defied 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 now wither with the coming of the Arab Winter.

Vaclav Havel, dissenter extraordinaire, declined even to call himself a dissenter. He only looked like one to the outside world, he would explain, for 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, as lengthy as they are unconvincing. Vaclav Havel continues to inspire. Mainly because of the simplicity of his principles and his following them so naturally. Without pomp and circumstance, just his natural dignity.

Vaclav Havel would do his extraordinary part to bury the Warsaw Pact and gain his country entrance to NATO, the European Union and the West in general. Of all the words he spoke during his long passage from dissenter to head of state, none may sum up his central belief so well as these:

"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 have a specific outcome."

Weigh the odds against particular success before acting, and the cause may be lost before it is launched.

Politicians come and go. Great leaders have an afterlife that illumines the path of future generations. Great leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and, yes, Vaclav Havel, who died this past weekend at 75.

Tyrants come and go, too, leaving only a sense of relief. Some manage to leave their wretched country even worse than they found it, hard as that may be to imagine in some cases. Like that of North Korea. Kim Jong Il also died last weekend.