Politics & Policy

Prague Journal, Part III

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.”

Rings true.

‐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.

‐The foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, says that building monuments to Reagan, and naming streets after him, is great. But it would be better if we imitated him. Also, he recalls that Reagan took on the establishment opinion of his day: the “leading economic theorists,” the “newspapers,” and so on. Boy, did he. “His example is one of courage.”


‐I thought I had heard all of Reagan’s jokes, every one of them, a hundred times over. Nope — Roman Joch tells one that’s new to me:

What’s the difference between a democracy and a “people’s democracy”? The difference between a jacket and a straitjacket.

‐Pete Wilson goes through the history of Reagan-Gorbachev summits — he does so crisply, accurately, and without notes. Impressive. In everything he does, he projects intelligence and decency. Would have made a good president, I believe. Would make one now. One could do worse, and is . . .

‐Peggy Noonan remembers Election Night 1980. She was working at CBS News, the radio division (if I have heard correctly). There was a big difference between the “white collars” and the “blue collars.” The white collars — the on-air personalities, producers, and so on — were very unhappy about Reagan’s victory. The blue collars were damn pleased. They and young Peggy exchanged thumbs-up.

I say that this reminds me of being in my building during the George W. Bush years — my apartment building in Manhattan. All the residents, it seemed, hated the president. And the workers in the building — not necessarily . . .

(Say a little prayer, please, that no one in my building reads Impromptus. I think we’re safe. I’d hate to get anyone in trouble.)

‐Here in Prague, I make some pointed remarks about the Chinese dictatorship, and the Obama administration’s kid-glove, sometimes smoochy, treatment of that dictatorship. This does not displease many of the Czechs in attendance, or so they tell me.

Later on, I will learn that the Chinese ambassador was present, sitting quite close to me. Good.

‐A lady stands up and says that her father was murdered by Shining Path in Peru — and why isn’t the world in general stronger in denouncing such groups?

You’re singing my song, ma’am.

‐Condi Rice gives a splendid speech, on the “practical case for democracy.” It’s easy to make the “moral case” for democracy, she says — what about the practical one? In this speech, she answers the criticisms and arguments of “democracy skeptics.”

If I can find a text of her speech — I’m not sure she used one — I will share it with you. In the meantime, let me record just a couple of her points.

“Everyone says, ‘You can’t impose democracy.’” (I’m paraphrasing Rice now.) “Actually, you don’t have to impose democracy. What you have to impose is tyranny. People naturally want democracy, or at least decent governance, and a say in their own affairs and destinies. You don’t have to impose democracy. You have to allow it. Tyranny, you have to impose” — as brutes do, all the world over.

She talks about how Latin American peoples were supposed to prefer caudillos, juntas, and the like. We saw, particularly in the 1980s, that that wasn’t true.

And she talks about what was said of blacks in the United States, in the rotten old days. “We didn’t really need the vote. We were simple, child-like. We wanted other people — white grown-ups — to take care of us.”

Again, I am paraphrasing — and I will seek out a text. The speech, whether you agreed with it or not, had arguments: arguments and counterarguments.

‐Afterward, Rice takes some questions, from the Czech press, I believe. One is on the American economy. And part of her answer goes like this: “Americans have become a quite entitled people” — an entitled-feeling people. She says that, instead of looking to their political class, people should look to themselves, and their demands.

Tell it, Condi.

‐A street is renamed for Reagan, or a stretch of a street — it runs outside the American ambassadorial residence. A ceremony is held, right on the street. A stage has been set up. The ceremony is emceed by our man in Prague, U.S. ambassador Norman Eisen. He’s an FOB — a Friend of Barack’s. They were law-school classmates, I believe.

In the last couple of days, he has been as gung-ho about Reagan as any of us Reaganites. Maybe more so. Here at the street renaming, he hails Reagan as “the man who looked evil in the eye and dared to call it evil!” Extraordinary. Since when did a Democrat approve of the “evil empire” speech? Maybe not since Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Bill Bennett . . .

I cherish those intellectuals who switched parties in the 1980s. I switched along with them, my own bad self.

Eisen is from California, and, when he introduces Pete Wilson, he says, “I was proud to have Ronald Reagan as my governor and then as my president. I was proud to have Pete Wilson as my senator and then as my governor.” Holy mackerel. This is going way beyond the call of diplomatic duty, you will agree.

What a gent (seriously).

‐Inside the residence, Eisen hosts an amiable party. He’s awfully nice to us righties. Tell you about a few “faces in the crowd.” There’s Cerny, the FOH — Friend of Havel’s. There’s Roger Robinson, a veteran Reagan hand, and his wife Jana, a Mandarin-speaking Czech. There’s Roger’s glorious daughter Grace, a Clemson Tiger.

There’s Irena Kalhousova, a policy analyst with the Prague Security Studies Institute, and a former student of the French horn and the piano. (Female horn players are rare, though not as rare as male harpists.) There’s Elena Germanova, another young analyst, who may be foreign minister of the neighboring country, Slovakia, one day. There’s Lilly Mueller — I may have the wrong variant of the last name — who is an interesting amalgam: a Norwegian of Dutch and Czech parentage who goes to school in Glasgow.

How you like them apples?

Finally, I’d like to mention Tom Gross, the Middle East media expert, and son of the late John Gross, the incomparable British literary critic, and sterling man. (How I hate writing that word “late.”) Tom lives with two beautiful girls: his wife Natalia and their baby daughter, Sivan.

‐At dinner, Pete Wilson has some great Reagan stories to tell, and some great other stories. His wife, Gayle, has some great stories too. And, by the way: She was a Westinghouse science whiz. Something that leaves me slightly awed (being someone who has trouble using a Westinghouse toaster).

‐As I mentioned earlier, I’m a Reagan idolater from way back — regular readers know that I’ve written a lot about how he shaped me — but I can get Reagan’d out. Do you know what I mean? I suppose I can even have enough of chocolate ice cream.

But I had a thought, in the midst of listening to two days of Reagan appreciation. Robert Graves once said, “The thing about Shakespeare is, he really is good.” Oh, yes.

Thanks for joining me, ladies and gentlemen, and see you soon.




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