Like Lech Walesa before him, Vaclav Havel came to Washington this week and left our nation's political leaders greatly inspired and slightly embarrassed. Havel, Czechoslovakia's new president, is the sort of person that we often read about in American history books but seldom encounter in contemporary public life. He has much more in common with a Jefferson or Paine than with the cautious, blow-dried functionaries that now threaten to overpopulate Capitol Hill.
He is a true intellectual, an internationally acclaimed playwright, a prominent victim of the communist thought police that subjugated his country for most of his life. He found in himself a reservoir of political courage that, thankfully, few Americans are ever called upon to display.
Most strikingly, Havel is an unassuming man who grudgingly assumed power only after his fellow citizens convinced him that the success of their democratic revolution depended in great part on his moral guidance.
Members of Congress seemed genuinely moved by Havel's account of Czechoslovakia's newly won freedom. At the same time, though, many of them must have surveyed their grand chambers as Havel extolled the virtues of "human meekness" and "human responsibility" and been reminded that great courage, great ideas and lack of political ambition are no longer the attributes with which Washington politicians are most readily identified in the public's mind.
Yet Havel's admiration for the United States could not be greater. He and his new government draw inspiration from the democratic principles on which our nation was founded. They seek to learn as much as possible about the modern economic miracle that our system of free enterprise has produced. They even long for the day when their revolution becomes so entrenched that they, too, can begin to take their new freedoms almost for granted, as we often seem to.
Havel was even gracious enough to offer us an excuse for our occasional lack of appreciation for a way of life that most of the rest of the world has thirsted for: "A person who cannot move and live a somewhat normal life because he is pinned under a boulder has more time to think about his hopes than someone who is not trapped in this way," he told Congress.
Czechoslovaks and other Eastern Europeans finally have cast that boulder aside, but they will not soon forget its stifling pressure. And in the course of liberating themselves, they have provided Americans and other free peoples with an occasion for reacquainting ourselves with the origins of our own liberties.
Havel didn't come to the United States looking for an economic bailout. By Eastern European standards, Czechoslovakia's economy is functioning reasonably well. Instead, he said he came to learn as much as possible about the ways in which a modern democracy sustains itself.
One of our secrets is the access that a free society offers to the new voices that continually reinvigorate it, and Washington has rarely heard a voice as invigorating as Havel's. Czechoslovakia's exceptional new president has asked us for very little, but we already owe him and his courageous cohorts a great deal.