Lawton Chiles' Prague spring

Florida's governor must have the courage to believe in ideas. • The state needs innovation; its traditional economic pillars — real estate, tourism and construction — have failed. • Only new, powerful ideas, backed boldly by public patrons, can uplift the postindustrial economy. • The Rick Scott administration, however, scorns expertise and intellectuality. Scott campaigned as a staunch anti-intellectual, refusing to meet with the major editorial boards around the state. His first year in office he slashed school spending by more than $1 billion and attacked university liberal arts programs as impractical. He singled out anthropology as a field unworthy of public support. "Do you want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can't get jobs in anthropology?" he asked.

The governor also lacks confidence in his own ideas; at the start of the current legislative session he reversed his education policy, asking the Legislature to increase K-12 education spending by $1 billion.

Perhaps he could learn from one of his predecessors. Lawton Chiles, though remembered by many as a creature and consumer of Southern folklore, also drew inspiration from public intellectuals outside his state and nation as he developed his vision for Florida. For Chiles, one thinker stood out above the rest: Vaclav Havel, the Czech president, playwright and human rights champion.

Havel's political oratory helped persuade Chiles to seek the governorship in 1990.

In spring of that year, Democratic Party insiders began a pilgrimage to see Chiles. They tried to persuade him to run for governor against Republican incumbent Bob Martinez. They needed the retired U.S. senator's name recognition, money and experience.

But Chiles was content as a private citizen to apply his passionate, questing intelligence to the cause of early childhood health care.

In the Senate, Chiles felt "locked in by a system." He worried that a return to public office — and the money chase it required — would only stifle his efforts to address infant mortality and other problems in Florida.

Havel, renowned for his democratic dissidence under Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, was one of the few who succeeded in firing up Chiles' political nerves.

Chiles had begun studying and emulating Havel's political values as early as fall 1989. As he prepared a lecture at the University of Chicago Law School, Chiles found himself bored with American civic chatter and instead drawn to the intellectual firmament behind Eastern Europe's democratic transformation.

"Never before in the history of man has the human genius been so important," Chiles said in his Chicago address. "Never before has the power of ideas been so potent. Today, this genius and the ideas it generates are the new wealth."

Havel's February 1990 address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress spoke directly to Chiles' moral method of justifying political involvement:

"We still don't know how to put morality ahead of politics, science and economy. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of all our actions, if they are to be moral, is responsibility — responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success.

"If I subordinate my political behavior to this imperative, mediated to me by my conscience, I can't go far wrong. … This is why I ultimately decided, after resisting for a long time, to accept the burden of political responsibility."

What Havel struggled to define, what many called "conscience," was what Chiles called his "inner voice."

And this voice called now for an end to vacillation and ideation. It called for action.

"That speech had a tremendous impact on him (Chiles)," recalled former staffer Doug Cook. "I don't know that I had ever seen him so excited."

By April, Chiles had decided to enter the race for governor. Havel provided the intellectual foundation.

"What kicked me off was the feeling that Bush and other leaders weren't listening (to the revolution in Eastern Europe)," Chiles said of his decision to pursue politics anew. "The world's never going to be the same. These people marching, walking into the square willing to risk their lives, and I was still sitting on the sidelines."

Once governor, Chiles continued to reflect on the power of great ideas in the public square, supplementing his instincts for the political game with strong ideas proposed by strong authors.

"Vision is not enough," Havel once said, "it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs."

To an extent, Scott is right to doubt debate in the liberal arts tradition. Ideas are a long-term investment. Not every anthropologist will find a job immediately. Not every playwright will become president. But the ones who do can change the world.

John Coggin is a freelance writer. His first book, an authorized biography of Lawton Chiles entitled Walkin' Lawton, will be published this fall.

Lawton Chiles' Prague spring 01/24/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 10:46am]

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