As the new president of Czechoslovakia, fresh from helping the Communist collapse, Vaclav Havel came to America in February 1990 and addressed a joint session of Congress.
Both practical and cosmic, the speech set a political and moral agenda for the post-Cold War world.
"The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human humbleness and in human responsibility," Mr. Havel told Congress.
He went on to say, "Intellectuals cannot go on forever avoiding their share of responsibility for the world and hiding their distastes for politics under an alleged need to be independent."
Mr. Havel's speeches and essays, their nuances perfectly translated by Paul Wilson, kept appearing in the New York Review of Books, and they were spellbinding.
A line from that February address stands out: "I often hear the question: How can the United States of America help us?" Today, found complete on the Internet, it's clear he asked us to "help the Soviet Union on its irreversible, but immensely complicated, road to democracy." But for certain listeners, President Havel seemed to saying: Americans, come help us build democracy.
As fate would have it, a planeload of Czech intellectuals showed up at New York University that March for a long-planned Conference on Czech Literature. Many of these eggheads were now government officials. At a reception during the conference, the new mayor of Prague, Jaroslav Koran (former dissident and noted translator of American literature), encountered a spellbound youngish New York assistant editor (this writer), who asked about moving to Prague and lending a hand. The mayor of Prague opened his arms wide and bellowed, "Come to Prague!"
Across the United States, similar epiphanies must have been taking place. Off went squadrons of Yankees, for various reasons, but some, in all earnestness, to help build democracy, propelled by the living example of Vaclav Havel. His slogan appears in every obituary today: "Truth and love will triumph over lies and hate." Commit to "living in truth" and you cannot go wrong.
Over the coming years, those who settled in came to be animated by the Czech spirit. (Others were animated purely by fermented spirits.) The Czechs started to rebuild something like democracy, with or without our help.
The Czech spirit teaches you to 1) believe in paradox as a normal state of affairs and 2) be serious -- but if you take yourself too seriously, you will shrivel and die.
That helps explains why, over the years of Mr. Havel's presidency, Czech public opinion was mixed. Forget the old-structure Communists, who remain a voting bloc today. Some Czechs, especially Prague cosmopolitans, didn't stay as enchanted with Vaclav Havel as one might expect. Another cohort resented the president's preaching, not wanting to be reminded they'd been craven during the totalitarian days.
His international celebrity seemed to serve as an echo chamber of high regard. A cutting phrase about certain Czech writers was that "they wrote for export." The same notion was often applied to Vaclav Havel, when they thought he was acting like president of the world.
But in recalling Havel's texts today, the high-flown rhetoric about humanity's mission isn't what sticks in the memory. More memorable is a passage from the 1992 essay "Politics, Mortality and Civility" about economics, which had nothing to do with dry statistics.
President Havel told his fellow Czechs that getting "our economy back on its feet is far from being the only task facing us. It is no less important to improve the general cultural level of everyday life. ... And it is not true that we have to wait until we are rich to do this: We can begin at once, without a crown in our pockets. No one can persuade me that only an expensive house can be pleasing, that only a wealthy merchant can be courteous to his customers and display a handsome sign outside, that only a prosperous farmer can treat his livestock well. ... Improving the civility of everyday life can accelerate economic development."
Some leaders set an impossibly high standard for the rest of us to follow. With Mr. Havel, that wasn't the case. Through simple decency and true love for life (not to mention wine, women and song), Vaclav Havel showed us a way to live.
John Allison, a Post-Gazette associate editor, lived in Prague from 1990 to 1994 (firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1915). First Published December 19, 2011 5:00 AM