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Practical Idealist

THE ART OF THE IMPOSSIBLE Politics as Morality in Practice By Vaclav Havel, Alfred A. Knopf: 273 pp., $24

June 29, 1997|GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS | George Stephanopoulos is former senior advisor to President Clinton and an ABC News analyst who appears on "This Week."

Close your eyes. Try to imagine an American politician beginning a speech with this sentence: "Allow me therefore a few observations on the subject of hope and death."

Or better yet: You are sitting at home, refreshment in hand, settled in for the yearly civic ritual of the president's State of the Union Address. The president approaches the podium and delivers these hard truths to the largest single audience that will hear no more than a sound bite from him all year:

"Our country is not flourishing. . . . None of us is just its victim; we are all also its cocreators. . . . We must accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. . . . Our main enemy today is our own worst nature: our indifference to the common good; vanity; personal ambition; selfishness and rivalry."

Impossible. One of the first rules you learn in American politics is never blame the voter for anything at any time. The voters are right even when their demands are contradictory or just plain wrong. During my time at the White House, we plundered the thesaurus each year to find synonyms for the word "strong"--the only politically appropriate way for a president to describe the State of Our Union.

But the author of the words above has never played by the rules of the game--not as a dissident imprisoned under Czechoslovakia's Communist regime and not as president of the Czech Republic since the Velvet Revolution in 1989 (the above excerpt from his first Inaugural Address came just a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall). His new book, "The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice," is no ordinary collection of political speeches. Better to think of it as a collection of Vaclav Havel's conversations with himself, which he has graciously, if tentatively, decided to share with the rest of us. Prisoner Havel confronts President Havel who is analyzed by Philosopher Havel and explained by Havel the Playwright. Like his American predecessor Thomas Jefferson, Vaclav Havel is a politician with the soul of a writer and a writer with the savvy of a politician.

That's why the reflections in this volume, which span the years 1990 to 1996, should be of interest to someone who may be only vaguely familiar with Havel's varied career in Czechoslovakia and may be turned off by the current practice of politics here in America. To be sure, Havel's speeches address all the topical questions of modern European politics in the post-Cold War era: the future of NATO; the consequences of European integration, the confused state of East-West relations; and the use and perils of globalization, particularly its effects on our natural environment.

But more interesting, and lasting, are Havel's meditations on the timeless questions of politics and philosophy: What is the nature of civic responsibility? When do the ends justify the means in state-craft? Can intellectuals serve with integrity in the political arena? Is it possible for people who hold political power to "live in truth" and approach the ideal of "politics as morality in practice"?

All of this might seem like heavy lifting if Havel didn't write with such a light touch. His often dense reflections on the nature of "Being" and "Transcendence" are leavened with irony, a bit of whimsy and down-to-earth descriptions like this definition of Postmodernism:

"For me a symbol of that state is a Bedouin mounted on a camel and clad in traditional robes under which he is wearing jeans, with a transistor radio in his hands and an ad for Coca-Cola on the camel's back."

You get the feeling reading these speeches that practicing the craft of writing is Havel's true pleasure, a relief from the day-to-day duties of presiding over a state. His voice is that of a person who happens to be president, not the other way around. He rarely fails to convey a sincere sense of astonishment, not entitlement, over the fact that he holds the highest office in his land.

Still Havel does not shrink from the demands of office even though he doesn't always enjoy them. If one conviction runs through the entire volume, it's Havel's belief that all citizens have a responsibility not only to themselves and their families, not only to their communities and their countries but also to the larger world and the generations who will inhabit it after we are gone. He concludes, perhaps reluctantly, that taking responsibility means you can't escape politics, "a politics deriving from the awareness that none of us--as an individual--can save the world as a whole, but that each of us must behave as though it were in his power to do so."

But to me what's most fascinating about this volume is watching Havel come to grips with the actual experience of political power: its trappings, temptations, frustrations and rewards. He may be a reluctant politician, but he's not an especially prissy one, and he's introspective enough to know that he's not immune to the petty corruption that always accompanies political power:

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