A centennial celebration in Prague
Prague, Czech Republic — ‘I never would have believed it,” people keep saying. “If you had told me, in the 1980s, that one day we would have a street named after Ronald Reagan here in Prague, I would have said you were crazy.” Prague will indeed name a street after Reagan. This year is the Reagan centennial, the late president having been born in 1911. They are commemorating him elsewhere on the Continent, too, and also over in Britain.
In Krakow, the cardinal said a special mass, in honor of the relationship between Reagan and John Paul II. In Budapest, a Reagan statue went up in Freedom Square, the same square that features a monument to the Red Army. The Soviet-era monument is rather controversial in Hungary. And, on the Fourth of July — three days after the street renaming in Prague — another statue of Reagan will go up, this one in Grosvenor Square, London.
The base of that statue will quote Margaret Thatcher: “Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War without firing a single shot.” That statement rests uneasily with some of us. So many shots were fired, in Central America, Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere. So many people died. But we all know what Lady T. means.
Prague is doing its part for Reagan, but there is another anniversary here, too. It has been 20 years since the end of the Warsaw Pact, 20 years since the last Soviet soldier left Czechoslovakian soil. He was a general named Vorobyov. In fact, Prague is having an entire Freedom Week. Organizers are commemorating the past, of course. But they are even more interested in the present.
There is an exhibition on Belarus — poor, battered Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe. Czechs feel a kinship with the Belarusians. But this is not just a matter of (rough) geographical proximity. Czechs know what it is to suffer under a dictatorial lash, wherever it is wielded. There is another exhibition on Cuba, a long way off from this country. And there is another on North Korea. Pictures and reports from the North Korean gulag, or the Cuban gulag, or any, are not for the squeamish.
Along with exhibitions, there are discussions, panels. One is on democratic unrest in the Arab world. It’s titled “Reagan’s Grandchildren.” I think how the title would upset many Americans: It would upset some conservatives who love Reagan but snort at any notion of an “Arab spring”; and it would upset some liberals, who are still smarting from Reagan but admire and root for the Arab protesters.
In Prague’s Liechtenstein Palace, there is a dinner, sponsored by the Reagan Presidential Foundation, in California, and the Prague Security Studies Institute. A slew of dignitaries, Czech and American, are present. Condoleezza Rice is the personal representative of Nancy Reagan. The former secretary of state gives a toast both eloquent and personal. She recalls that her key professor in the field of international relations was a Czech exile, Josef Korbel. (She does not mention that he was the father of another future secretary of state: Madeleine Albright.)
The Czech ambassador to the U.S., Petr Gandalovič, recalls the intense propaganda he heard against Reagan in Communist Czechoslovakia. So great was this propaganda, “I figured there must be something to this fellow.” The Czech prime minister, Petr Nečas, says, “In a symbolic sense, he was our president, too.”
Over and over, Czechs say that Reagan’s denunciation of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” gave them hope and courage. And I think back to the time that he gave that particular speech. Our chattering class heaped derision on it. How could our president be such a simpleton, such a “fundamentalist,” such a warmonger? Henry Steele Commager, the esteemed historian, said that Reagan had given “the worst presidential speech in American history,” adding, “I’ve read them all.” A couple of years ago, I had a talk with George Shultz (Reagan’s main secretary of state). He remembered when Paul Nitze was testifying before a Senate committee. A leading Democrat said to this veteran and urbane diplomat, “How can you serve under a president who calls the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’?” Nitze answered, “Did you ever consider that it’s true?”
Listening to former dissidents here, you realize how deeply Reagan’s rhetoric penetrated. What might have seemed boilerplate or Mickey Mouse or bluster to us, meant a lot behind the Iron Curtain. In the Soviet Gulag, Anatoly Shcharansky heard, somehow, that Reagan had declared a particular year the “Year of the Bible.” For a time, he was able to study the Bible with a fellow inmate, Volodya. They called their sessions “Reaganite readings.”
In 2008, I heard Pres. George W. Bush give a speech to an auditorium of Arab elites in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. They greeted his words (about democracy and freedom) with coldness and scorn. I thought, “This is the wrong audience. The men and women in prison cells would love it.”
At the dinner in the Liechtenstein Palace, several Czechs say how thrilling it was to hear Reagan say he wanted to win the Cold War — not just manage or cope with it, but win it. It’s possible to forget, today, just how radical and frightening Reagan’s stance was judged in the West at the time. Détente, accommodation, coexistence was the name of the game. The Soviet Union and its empire were here to stay. Talk of winning, of bringing them down, was fanciful at best, dangerous at worst. The West German hero Willy Brandt had spoken for many, in his Nobel lecture: “Coexistence has become a question of the very existence of man.” It was not merely “one of several acceptable possibilities, but the only chance of survival.” Reagan was upsetting all this.
The morning after the dinner, there is a conference in Czernin Palace — in the very room where, 20 years ago to the day, Václav Havel announced the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. The Czech foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, gives a speech. He asks us to remember the great opposition Reagan had to overcome — not from the East, but in his own environment. He went against the foreign-policy establishment, “the dominant economic theorists,” “the newspapers,” and so on. “His example is one of courage.” Schwarzenberg also says that statues and street signs are fine. But the best way to honor Reagan is to imitate him.
Roman Joch, a policy intellectual, tells a series of Reagan’s favorite jokes. I thought I knew them all. But here is one I didn’t: What’s the difference between a democracy and a “people’s democracy”? The difference between a jacket and a straitjacket. To end the morning, and the conference, Rice makes a speech, arguing for democracy against its many skeptics. She notes that people are always saying, “You can’t impose democracy.” Her retort is, you don’t have to impose democracy. You have to impose tyranny.
In the late afternoon, Dr. Zikmund Winter Street — a portion of it — becomes Ronald Reagan Street. It runs in front of the U.S. ambassadorial residence. Our ambassador, Norman Eisen, presides over a ceremony. A stage has been erected right on the street. Eisen is an FOB, a Friend of Barack — a law-school classmate of the president. But all day long, he has been out-Reaganing us Reaganites. He hails a president “who looked evil in the face and dared to call it evil!” Wowser.
Off to the side, a sign is draped. It’s obviously the new street sign. The drape is affixed to the top, but two young women hold the bottom of the drape, to keep the wind from blowing it up. They are in short black dresses and heels, and are wearing Miss America–style sashes, which say, “Praha 6.” That is the particular municipal division we’re in. And the look of these young women — these hostesses — is gloriously retro. Once all the speeches have been made, the drape comes off. From somewhere, we hear a few seconds of cheesy music: Ta-dah! And “Ronalda Reagana” Street is official. (The name looks feminine in the local rendering.)
Reagan is not the only president in town to be honored. The Czechs have long revered Woodrow Wilson, as so many Europeans do: for his insistence on national independence and self-determination. The railway station in Prague is named for Wilson. From 1928 — the Fourth of July! — to December 1941, there was a statue of him in front of it. But after Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war on America, and the Nazis in Prague melted the thing down for bullets. A new statue will go up in its place, on October 5 of this year.
Back to Reagan, though: Would you say that most people are reconciled to that president and his achievements? Even Obama, who opposed him bitterly when Reagan was president, says nice things about him now. The passage of time is a remarkable animal. Throughout the 1980s, the Nobel peace committee handed out prizes to foes of Reagan: unilateral disarmers and the like. Committee members told Oscar Arias, in 1987, that they were giving him the prize to use as a weapon against Reagan. (Arias, the Costa Rican president, was against the Contra war versus the Sandinistas.) More than 20 years later, at Obama’s Nobel ceremony, the committee chairman quoted Reagan, holding him up as a president who embodied universal values.
Again, my thoughts run to Bush 43. Throughout the 2000s, the Nobel committee gave prizes to his foes — Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Mohamed ElBaradei, Al Gore . . . The Nobel chairman said that the prize to Carter, in particular, was meant as a rebuke to Bush. What will chairmen say in the future?
For two days here in Prague, I hear people, Czech and American, gush about Reagan. I too do some gushing. Which is only natural and right. Still, it can all be a bit much, even for a longstanding Reagan idolater like me. I am ready to give Reagan a rest. But I smile on remembering that wonderfully usable line from Robert Graves: “The thing about Shakespeare is, he really is good.” So it is with our Gipper.