PRAGUE, Czech Republic — President Clinton, a leader known for thinking great thoughts on weekend retreats, was shown the sights of this history-steeped capital Tuesday night by a different sort of Renaissance man, Czech President Vaclav Havel.
Arriving from the Brussels NATO summit Tuesday afternoon for meetings with East European leaders before going on to summits in Kiev and Moscow, Clinton was led by the playwright-president around Prague castle, onto the 15th-Century Charles Bridge over the Vltava River, and out for an evening of dining and jazz in one of Central Europe's trendiest towns.
The one sour note of the evening occurred an hour and 40 minutes into Clinton's visit to the Reduta nightclub, when what turned out to be a firecracker went off in the street outside. The presidential limousine quickly pulled up onto the sidewalk in front of the club's door, and a tense-faced President strode briskly to the car as Secret Service agents held a bulletproof coat in front of him.
Within minutes, Clinton was back in the heavily policed safety of the Atrium Hotel, a structure as new as the Charles Bridge is old.
During his chats with Clinton, the gentlemanly Havel betrayed none of his government's recent unhappiness with the United States over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's insistence on slowing the new Eastern democracies' drive for membership. And he had praised Clinton in a radio address to Prague residents last Sunday as a man with "a remarkable ability to listen."
A long-anticipated highlight of the trip was to be the walk on the bridge, a twin-tower marvel begun in 1357 and adorned with 30 oversized statues of saints that is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe. To the east lay Prague's Old Town. Atop the soaring bluffs to the west is Hradcany Castle, a walled fortress that includes the presidential palace and the Gothic splendor of the Cathedral of St. Vitus.
The castle, illuminated in icy white light, towered above the ancient city and the dark, cold waters of the Vltava. It seemed a scene from a medieval fairy tale as the two leaders strolled along the fabled bridge.
But this was the 20th Century, and this moment was not fated to be one of shared reflection for two contemplative heads of state.
White House aides had been planning the event for months as a made-for-television spectacle of the U.S. President meeting a hero of the struggle that freed the captive nations of the former Soviet Bloc.
As a result, the two presidents were not quite alone: There were Czech police, the Secret Service and White House advance staffers, of course. There were TV newsmen Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel and their respective camera crews. Instead of sharing deep thoughts, the two leaders were giving interviews and struggling to be heard over the din of aides and crew members shouting "Down!" and "Get out of the shot!" to pedestrians stepping into the frame.
American culture was not far away. As Clinton strolled, a Dixieland band on the street below was serenading with "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby."
The bridge has, in fact, become a testament to the unruly forces of the free-market capitalism that Clinton has come to Prague, in part, to celebrate. The bridge, built to the specifications of Charles IV, Czech king and Holy Roman Emperor, has now become a hive of street vendors hawking ceramics, knickknacks, inexpensive art, and even Western tapes and CDs.
Some city residents complain the kiosk capitalists have made it impossible to enjoy the bridge except in early morning, and the government has tried--without success--to bring them under control.
Clinton's visit crowded the center-city area around the bridge with thousands of Prague residents, most of them young, many apparently familiar with Clinton's politics.
Lucy Chaloupecka, a 26-year-old executive assistant, had heard about Clinton's decision to focus his Administration's efforts on domestic needs rather than foreign policy. "I think he's rather a courageous man," she said.
Prague has about 20,000 Americans among its 1.2 million inhabitants, and many of them were there to watch Clinton as well.
Richard E. Suydam, a teacher, said he wished Clinton the best on his domestic agenda but was not overwhelmed. "I've seen Presidents come and go," said Suydam, who exercised his American franchise to vote for Ross Perot.
After their walk, Clinton and Havel headed for a pub called the Golden Tiger for Pilsner beer and breaded veal chops.
There, along with the beer and the huge slabs of meat, Clinton managed to squeeze in a conversation with Jirina Kopold and her husband, Bedrich. He had met them 24 years ago, when their son Jan was among his classmates at Oxford University. Jirina's mother, Marie Svernoa, a founder of the Czech Communist Party, had guided Clinton around Prague during his student days.