Thank you, friends, for joining me on this little jaunt. For Parts I and II, go here and here. In this third and final part, I thought I’d tell you a little about the Reagan centennial festivities in Prague. I’m going to do a piece on this, for National Review — will be in the next issue. But I thought you wouldn’t mind a little extra, here.
In the Liechtenstein Palace, there is a reception and dinner. A colleague of mine, Charles Kesler, the famed political scientist, quips, “You might have thought that a Liechtenstein palace would be smaller.”
At this affair, there are many Americans I know: John O’Sullivan, Peggy Noonan, Condi Rice. (Was that name-droppy?) There are also some Czechs I know, including Roman Joch, who knows more about American politics — particularly American conservatism — than just about any of us. But there are many, of various nationalities, I don’t know.
One is Oldrich Cerny — I’m glad to meet him. He is a friend of Havel’s, has known him since he was 16. (Since Cerny was, I mean.) Like Havel, Cerny was a man of the theater — and of letters. After the revolution, he became national security adviser to Havel, and then intelligence director for the state.
He tells me how he first met Havel. He saw a play by the future president (if I have understood correctly). And he expected the playwright to be a typical avant-garde figure — to look the part. Instead, Havel came out in “a stagehand’s smock.”
I wish I could tell you more — I may firm up the details later.
Havel, by the way, is not in Prague, for these Reagan festivities. As I understand it, he is in Carlsbad, for some recuperation. In this country, they call Carlsbad “Karlovy Vary.” That’s not how we do it in California, as you know.
Speaking of California, someone says to Pete Wilson, “What do people call you: ‘Senator’ or ‘Governor’?” “Both,” he answers. “Or Pete.”
At the dinner, several Czech dignitaries speak, expressing warm appreciation for Reagan. They especially take note of his rhetoric — his straight talk, about the state of the world. It was thrilling, to those behind the Iron Curtain, to hear the American president refer to the Soviet Union and its holdings as an “evil empire.”
But, oh my goodness, how American elites went berserk over that statement! You remember Henry Steele Commager? He called the speech in which the statement was made “the worst presidential speech in American history, and I’ve read them all.”
And allow me to quote a piece I did on George Shultz, a few years ago — I went out to California to see him:
Shultz smiles at remembering Paul Nitze, the urbane, veteran diplomat. [Nitze] was testifying before a panel of senators, being worked over by the Democrats. One of them said, “How can you serve in an administration whose president calls the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’?” Nitze answered, “Did you ever consider the possibility that it’s true?”
General Electric, Reagan’s old employer, has made, or sponsored, a little film about him. We see it at the dinner. It emphasizes Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War. He played a big role, of course — but it’s possible to exaggerate it. As a die-hard Reagan idolater, I think I’m entitled to say that. You can’t really out-Reagan me.
May I quote another old piece — one written in 1999, about Condi Rice?
Reagan, stresses Rice, was blessed with timing (unlike [John Foster] Dulles): He “mobilized the power of the United States” and “hit on a rollback strategy that challenged the Soviets” when the moment was ripe. In addition to which, “we were extraordinarily fortunate, because it’s not clear to me that a leader other than Gorbachev might not have chosen to challenge back” — and that would have been a whole different ball game.
I don’t mean to bombard you with block quotes, but can you stand some more from that piece? Kind of interesting.
Conservatives, Rice maintains, “underestimate Gorbachev’s role” in the conclusion of the Cold War: “The Soviet Union might have been weak internally, but when people say, ‘Well, he had no options’ — oh, he had options! He had 390,000 troops in Germany. He could have provoked a tremendous crisis over the Berlin Wall.” Gorbachev did take repressive steps in the Baltics, but, “for some reason, he always pulled up short of using maximum force, and we should all be very grateful for that.”
Okay, here comes a summary:
Conservatives, Rice summarizes, underestimate the importance of Gorbachev; liberals underestimate the importance of Reagan; and “they all underestimate the importance of George Bush,” her old boss. [That would be 41, remember.] Is this Rice the analyst talking or Rice the loyal staffer and friend? “Well, ask yourself,” she replies: “Was it inevitable that Germany unified on completely Western terms, within NATO; that Soviet troops went home, with dignity and without incident; that American troops stayed; that all of Eastern Europe was liberated and joined the Western bloc? No, it was not inevitable — and that leaves a lot of room for statecraft.”
The American delegation here includes House members, and one of them is Karen Bass, a Democrat from Los Angeles. She is sitting at my table. Very pleasant person. As the speakers gush on about Reagan, I wonder, “What did she think of him at the time — the time he was alive, kicking, working, and revolutionizing? And what does she think of him now? What’s it like to be her, listening to this?”
Condi gives a toast, a nicely personal one. She remembers that her main teacher — the one who got her interested in foreign affairs, and the Soviet Union in particular — was an exiled Czech diplomat, Josef Korbel. (Father of Madeleine Albright, incidentally.) She also remembers when she first went to the Soviet Union. People told her, “You have an accent” (when speaking Russian). She said, “Of course I do — I’m an American.” They said, “No, no, we don’t mean that — it’s a Czech accent.”
The young woman had been taught Russian by a Czech. (She names him, though I don’t remember that name.)
The next morning, there is a conference on Reagan and his legacy. It takes place in the Cernin Palace, where Jan Masaryk went out the window. Was he pushed or did he commit suicide? I had long thought the question settled — murdered, by the Communists, of course. But I’m given to understand that the question remains murky.
What I think is clear is this: Twenty years ago to the day, in the room where we are meeting, Vaclav Havel announced that the Warsaw Pact was dissolved.