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From Prisoner to President: Václav Havel

In an atmosphere of decency, creativity, tolerance, and quiet resolution, we shall bear far more easily the trials we have yet to experience, and resolve all the large problems we must face.

--Václav Havel addressing the nation, January 1, 1992

Václav Havel's often frustrating personal crusade for morality and honesty in politics made him a most unlikely world leader.

Born in 1936 to a wealthy building developer, he was on the wrong side of communism's bourgeois divide and wasn't allowed a top education. His interest in theater grew from his stint as a set boy and led to the staging of his first plays at Prague's Theater on the Balustrade (Divadlo Na Zábradlí). His play The Garden Party was widely acclaimed, and he became the playwright from the place he'd later call Absurdistan. After Havel publicly criticized the Soviet invasion and Communist policies, his plays and essays were banned.

In 1977, he helped draft Charter 77, a manifesto urging the government to respect human rights and decency; it was condemned by the politburo as a subversive act. Under almost constant surveillance by the StB (secret police), Havel was placed under house arrest and imprisoned several times. His philosophical writings about life under repression during that period--especially his essay "The Power of the Powerless"--became world-renowned for their insight into the dark gray world behind the iron curtain.

He was a natural choice for a leader when well-read students and artists decided that the time was ripe for revolution.

Soon after Havel led the citizen's movement, Civic Forum, that ousted the Communist government in 1989, he told a joint session of the U.S. Congress why he accepted the offer to be president: "Intellectuals cannot go on forever avoiding their share of responsibility for the world and hiding their distaste for politics under an alleged need to be independent." Virtually overnight, he moved from the prison dungeon to the presidential throne, though he chose to live in his modest apartment on the river even when he could have lived in Prague Castle. (Havel now lives in a stylish villa in the smart part of town.)

After the peaceful split of Czechoslovakia into two countries in 1993, he was elected the first president of the now-independent Czech Republic.

In late 1996, the chain-smoking, 60-year-old Havel was diagnosed with a small malignant tumor on his lung. The surgery to remove half of one lobe almost cost him his life less than a year after his wife, Olga, died of cancer. He has since survived no fewer than three life-threatening illnesses. In the midst of the first painful and frightening recuperation, Havel shocked the country by getting married again, this time to a popular (and much younger) stage and screen actress, Dagmar Veskrnová.

In an interview in mid-1997, the normally reserved Havel railed at the media's negative reaction to his surprise marriage. "I would not hold a referendum on this. I am the one who has to live with my wife, not anyone else," he said to a reporter in an uncommonly terse fashion. Havel also bristles at anyone who suggests that he should become an antismoking advocate after his ordeal, saying that people should have "the right to decide how to kill themselves."

After returning to full duties, the still-popular philosopher won his last 5-year term allowed under the constitution in early 1998. Havel, however, hasn't dirtied his hands much in the rough-and-tumble of postrevolutionary politics, instead using his mostly ceremonial post to act as a moral balancing wheel, warning against possible excesses of the new freedoms.

"From the West we have learned to live in a soulless world of stupid advertisements and even more stupid sitcoms and we are allowing them to drain our lives and our spirits, " he told the nation in a speech marking the fifth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

Havel has an office full of honors from abroad, including the Roosevelt Four-Freedoms Medal, the Philadelphia Freedom Medal, France's Grande Croix de la Légion d'Honneur, and India's Indira Gandhi Prize. He has been short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize numerous times, but has never won. An unabashed fan of rock music, Havel kept close company with Frank Zappa until Zappa's death, and he has had friendly meetings with Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. He once held up traffic at an Australian airport to have a conversation on the tarmac with Mick Jagger.

The longest reign of any post-Communist president came to an end in February 2003, when Havel was forced by the constitution to step down. Many Czechs felt he was past his prime as president after 13 years in office, but he remains the most recognizable symbol of the country abroad. Havel returned to his previous life as a philosopher and writer, and spends a lot of his time working in the philanthropic foundation he set up with his wife.

With no apparent successor of Havel's stature available, the contest to replace him turned to farce. On several occasions the parliament could not muster the majority vote needed to elect a new head of state. For weeks, the country was without a president. Finally, some bizarre political gymnastics between the parties led to the election of Havel's archrival Václav Klaus--the former prime minister with whom Havel clashed over social and economic policies throughout the 1990s. Klaus, who frequently scoffed at Havel's idealism and warm acceptance of the European Union, has found many cold shoulders in the palaces of Europe since taking over for his 5-year term.

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