PRAGUE, Czech Republic — On the hilltop Prague Castle that he calls home, Czech President Vaclav Havel has installed a giant pulsating neon heart, in what the onetime anti-communist dissident calls a symbol of "love, understanding and decency."
On the eve of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit, he told President Bush and other leaders Wednesday that it was also "a sign of our hospitality."
In return, the NATO leaders honored their host at a black-tie banquet at the castle -- and reveled in the Western alliance's Cold War success.
French President Jacques Chirac, speaking on behalf of all the leaders, praised "the friendly, humble, soft but vivid light of the iron man who, in the dark depths of jail, in the abyss of totalitarianism, never weakened."
" 'Truth will prevail,' you used to say. Indeed, it did prevail," Chirac declared to the former playwright. "We bear witness to this tonight."
As the leaders of the world's dominant military alliance prepared to invite in seven new members -- all formerly under communist rule -- and shift NATO's focus to the U.S.-declared war on terrorism, antiwar and anti-globalization activists staged protests in the center of the Czech Republic's capital -- and saw in the neon heart symbolism of another kind.
One of the protesters, a university student from Germany who declined to give her name, pointed to what she called hypocrisy in the glowing red heart. "It's, 'Hey, we are the good boys, we need to protect the world. Our big heart,' " she said.
There was indeed a self-congratulatory tone to the pre-dinner speeches by Chirac and NATO Secretary-General George Robertson honoring Havel. The Czech leader is nearing the end of his second and final term as president, having also served as the former Czechoslovakia's president, and the dinner was in part meant to salute him and his role in the collapse of Soviet power.
Chirac praised "the light of the writer and the dramatist who, by the power of the pen, armed solely with courage and his faith in mankind and truth, has nurtured the hopes of the oppressed who were denied democracy."
"This is a moment in history when Europe ... is at last gathering as one, a moment when Europe and North America affirm their common values and the indivisible nature of their security policy," Chirac said.
Robertson declared that "this will be NATO's transformation summit," preparing it for threats and challenges in the 21st century.
"Tomorrow, in the NATO summit, we will make real history," Robertson said. "Tonight, we honor a man, Vaclav Havel, who made that history possible.... You, Mr. President, kept the flame of freedom burning here. It was a flame of bright hope amid dark oppression. You were an inspiration, at home and abroad.
"Now, scarcely more than a decade on from the recovery of Czech democracy, you are president of your country and the host and dean of the NATO summit in Prague. Who says dreams don't come true?"
Protesters assembling in Prague had a very different take on events, carrying banners and posters with messages such as "Stop War, No Blood for Oil." One banner, sarcastically proclaiming "Thank You NATO," showed a starving child holding out a bowl as a plane flew over and dropped in bullets. Two main demonstrations Wednesday drew only about 600 participants each, but larger protests are expected today.
"Every day, thousands of children have to die because they don't have enough food to eat," said Ondrej Slacalek, a Czech university student and organizer of a protest meant to mock the banquet activities. "At the same time these children are dying, the people responsible for these deaths are eating very good food."
The scene at the castle was glittering. The dining room was a stunning hall with parquet floors, white walls, large mirrors and gilt molding. The leaders' table was circular, with glass bowls in the center floating flowers of white, yellow and orange.
Havel's wife, Dagmar, wore a simple but elegant evening dress. First Lady Laura Bush wore a plum-colored gown with matching shawl and a large gold necklace with prominent green and red jewels. Waiters in black tie and white gloves served wild mushroom terrine on silver trays; followed by fish consomme with saffron, crayfish and fresh vegetables; guinea fowl with old Bohemian mustard sauce, snow peas and potato pancakes; and raspberries.
Considerable interest has focused on whether Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will use the summit to patch up frosty personal relations caused by the German leader's tactics in his recent reelection campaign, which were based in part on opposition to Bush's policies on Iraq.
But Bush and Schroeder didn't engage each other during the toasts, when the two were seated at opposite ends of the table. Most of the dinner was closed to the press, and there were no immediate accounts of whether Bush and Schroeder spoke to each other at all.
Earlier in the day, Bush appeared in high spirits at a brief news conference after meeting with Havel. A Czech reporter began a question saying: "President Bush, you have said some lofty words here. The Czech Republic ... " Bush interjected: "I said some what?"
"Lofty words," came the reply, to general laughter.
"No one has ever accused me of being a poet before, but thank you," Bush said, to more laughter.
Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this report.