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Madeleine Albright on Vaclav Havel’s ‘Massive Moral Authority, Great Courage’

December 19, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Thousands of Czechs braved the freezing cold Monday in Prague to pay their respects to former President Vaclav Havel, who died Sunday at age 75. Judy Woodruff discusses the extraordinary life of the writer, dissident and president with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, the extraordinary life of Vaclav Havel, writer, dissident and president.

Judy Woodruff has our remembrance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thousands of Czechs braved the freezing cold in Prague today to pay their respects to former President Vaclav Havel, who died Sunday at age 75. A renowned playwright who fought Soviet rule of the former Czechoslovakia for more than 20 years, Havel went from dissident to leader almost overnight, after the so-called Velvet Revolution of December 1989, when Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets to demand an end to communist rule.

The communist government fell. And on Dec. 29, 1989, Vaclav Havel was elected president. Four years later, his country split in two, forming the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Havel served as president of the independent Czech Republic for 10 more years, retiring in 2003.

After news of Havel’s death spread, thousands gathered at the monument of the Velvet Revolution in downtown Prague to lay flowers and light candles.

Vaclav Havel spoke with Jim Lehrer on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in February 1990, shortly after he was elected president.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe that there is something basic in all human beings that relates to freedom, they know what freedom is, and even though they have never lived through it, and even though they may not have even read about it?

VACLAV HAVEL, former Czech Republic president (through translator): I have no doubt about it. I think this is a part of the nature of man, a desire for freedom, for dignified life.

Of course, man is also a weak creature with many bad qualities. And it depends on which of his qualities will in a certain social situation and in a certain climate prevail, which qualities will awaken. The totalitarian system was masterful in how it managed to mobilize all the bad qualities.

JIM LEHRER: What has been the damage of that mobilization of the bad qualities of your people for 40 years?

VACLAV HAVEL (through translator): The damages are enormous, spiritual, material, environmental, cultural, political.

JIM LEHRER: What about on the psyche of the people?

VACLAV HAVEL (through translator): This is naturally the most important thing, the dark traces left by the era of totalitarianism in the human mind, where is — are difficult to do away with. And this is a very demanding job.

JIM LEHRER: Is there a play in all of this has happened to you and your country in the last few months?

VACLAV HAVEL (through translator): It is a great drama with features of all dramatic genres, from Greek tragedy to absurdist drama, but it is a place so thrilling and so peculiar that no earthling could have invented it and written it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And joining me now to discuss the life of Vaclav Havel is former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She is a native of Czechoslovakia.

Thank you for being with us.

You were just saying to me you were with President Havel when he came here to the NewsHour in 1990. And you remember something about that visit.

FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I’m very glad to see that again. And I’m glad to be with you.

What happened was that I knew that he didn’t want to look into people’s eyes, because he said that, when he was being interrogated during the communist period and had been taken to jail, that, if you look directly into somebody’s eyes, they can persuade you. And so you can see that so clearly in this interview, where he’s looking down.

And I kept saying to him as we kept coming — came over here: “You have got to look at Jim. You have to look up.”

And I clearly had no influence on him.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What was he like? I mean, he clearly was not the typical — anything but the typical politician.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: He was the most amazing man in terms of being the combination of somebody with massive moral authority, great courage for having espoused the concepts of democracy, freedom throughout a very difficult communist period, a very modest man, and somebody with a fabulous sense of humor and the idea of being able to see the absurd in situations.

So, he was a combination of many different aspects and tremendously interesting to be with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were saying to me that the time he spent — he made the decision to stay in Czechoslovakia. He could have left over a number of — on a number of occasions during communist rule. Why did he stay?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Because I — we talked about this a lot. And he stayed because he felt he had an obligation to the Czechoslovak people to be there and to teach — well, talk with them, teach with them, write about it.

And he kidded about the fact, “Just imagine, I could have just been a screenwriter in Hollywood.”

And so he did have the opportunity to leave. And he made a deliberate choice not to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They put him in jail, in prison several times. That made it hard for him, didn’t they?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Very hard. And they followed him and they harassed him. When he wasn’t in jail, they harassed him.

And there was a time that he just wanted to travel from Prague to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, as a citizen, and they kept following him and trying to figure out what he was doing, and partially because he was like a magnet for people who disagreed with the system. And, so, the system was afraid of him. And so they either harassed him for put him in jail.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that why they didn’t put him away permanently, why they didn’t do more harm to him?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think they knew that he did have a following, and also that people in the West knew about him.

And the very interesting thing, Judy, he would say to me after — while he was president and then later that it was very important for those of us in the West who believe in democracy to shine the light on the dissidents, because, if people know who they are, then they are less likely to be put away, and — as you put it.

And I think that, from his own experience, he knew if we all paid attention to what was going on, the chances were that even the most horrible dictators wouldn’t execute people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did he take to politics?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think he actually liked them. And, I mean, he didn’t think he would.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, he stayed as president for, what, 14 years.


And I think, initially, you know, he was kind of swept — and those pictures are fabulous. He was swept on a wave into the castle. In Czech, they would say, “Havel na Hrad,” “Havel to the castle.”

And he was a really popular leader. He couldn’t believe that he was really there. I mean, he still dressed in black T-shirts and jeans and was very kind of ’60s. And he began to realize the seriousness of it. And he knew how to strategize. And he had a very keen political sense, but he didn’t want to be like the old communist leaders.

He didn’t want to ride around in big black cars. And he had his own car with a little red heart on it. And he loved to go out and talk to the people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were saying that he signed all his letters with a little heart?


He signed it with a red pen for the heart and a green pen for his signature. And he had this great sense of humor. And you kind of felt that he was making a little bit fun of everything at the same time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were saying he loved music and being with musicians.

You saw him just a couple of months ago.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I was in Prague in October for his 75th birthday. I’m so glad I was there.

And he loved this group called Plastic People of the Universe, who were Czech-style hippies. They all showed up in October. They were a little — they had long gray hair, but they still played great rock ‘n’ roll. He loved jazz. And when he came to the United States, we would go to jazz clubs.

And then the Plastic People of the Universe showed up here.

And so he did love music. And so much about the Czech revolution was about music.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think his legacy will be?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think his legacy will be that here was a person who felt so deeply about freedom and democracy and respect for human beings.

And I think he’s one of the great figures of the 20th century. He is one of the people that was able to be a part of overthrowing a dictatorial system by talking to people and understanding what the elements of democracy really are and respect for each other and elevating.

He had moral stature. The president in first Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic in many ways is a ceremonial role. And so, speaking out and having that strong moral fiber, people just knew that he told the truth to people who had only heard lies. And so I think his — that’s his legacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, Madeleine Albright, what more do you think he would have liked to have done?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think he probably would have liked to have written more plays. I think he missed being a playwright.

He did write a play a couple of years ago. It was called “Leaving,” what it was like to leave high office. I think many of us could identify with it. I think he talked about wanting to write plays and keep appealing to people through that medium, rather than politics

I think he felt that he could speak more truth, in a way, through writing plays.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a friend to Vaclav Havel, thank you very much.