Remembering Vaclav Havel’s Visit to NewsHour Studios in the 1990s


Former Czech President Vaclav Havel during a newspaper interview in Prague, Czech Republic, on Jan. 18, 2011. Photo by Photo by Lidove noviny/Ondrej Nemec/isifa/Getty Images.

The man and his setting could not have been less prepossessing. That, in itself, was a warning that appearances can be deceiving.

In February 1990, amid the euphoria of the collapse of Soviet communism in Central and Eastern Europe, the new president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, made a visit to Washington. Most of his stops were official, meeting with President George H.W. Bush, receptions and a speech to a joint meeting of Congress. To a group of politicians not used to sitting through philosophical disquisitions, that is exactly how Havel spoke to Congress, and they could not stop giving him standing ovations.

And then Havel came from those lofty heights to the dumpy collection of warehouses in Shirlington, Virginia, where then MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour had its Washington studios.

In Havel’s eyes, Shirlington must have most resembled a Slovak mining town, not the outskirts of the capital of the Free World. Accompanying him was Madeleine Albright, then a professor at Georgetown University, a Democratic Party foreign policy adviser and the daughter of a former Czechoslovakian diplomat. She, of course, would go on to become America’s first female secretary of state.

By nature, Havel was a shy man, almost diffident on first meeting. Years of interrogation by state security had taught him to avoid looking directly at interrogators. He and Albright arrived early at our building and after a brief hello indicated they did not want to sit around. As my colleague Peggy Robinson recalled, they took a walk down the street to one of the Washington area’s less renowned eateries, a truck stop called the Weenie Beanie, and there the president took coffee and cigarettes with Albright.

After that, he wanted to walk some more, clearly a person for whom walking was part of the process of thinking the thoughts and words that over decades had moved millions in his country and dissidents throughout Central Europe. Behind our studios is a softball field, and there he paced as he prepared the interview. (I later suggested to the Arlington County commissioners, to no avail, that they either name the field for Havel or at least put up a plaque saying he had been there.)

The interview with Jim Lehrer followed; and 20 years later, many of us here still remembered it vividly, not just a journalist interviewing a politician, but a writer talking to a fellow wordsmith.

There are numerous reasons people go into journalism, high among them to have the front-row seat on history and to ask questions of and talk to those who make history. In those pivotal and exhilarating years of the early-1990s, as Soviet rule ended in Central and Eastern Europe and as apartheid came down in South Africa, we at the NewsHour had the opportunity to be in the company of leaders — Havel, Poland’s Lech Walesa and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, who shaped history rather than being shaped by it. Those memories are especially strong on a day like today, as we see the first of those three exit the mortal world stage.

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