A Tale of Two Presidents
By Arianna Huffington
February 12, 1998
Last week, Vaclav Havel was in the news being inaugurated for his second term as president of the Czech Republic. President Clinton, in the second year of his second term, was in the news dodging questions about the Monica Lewinsky saga. The two presidents' concerns converged briefly on Wednesday when Clinton asked the Senate to ratify the inclusion of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO -- a goal Havel has fervently pursued.
Other than their strong agreement on the expansion of NATO, Havel and Clinton are at the two extremes of the leadership spectrum. Havel, a playwright and political prisoner turned president, considers politics "the art of the impossible" -- also the title of a recently published collection of his speeches. Clinton, on the other hand, has taken it upon himself to epitomize politics as the art of the all-too-possible -- the following of the path of least resistance, the neglect of social problems that don't clamor to be addressed, a total reliance on polls and political handlers.
Havel calls for "post-modern politicians" who will speak the truth and put principle above party. "Firsthand personal insight into things" and "the courage to be oneself and go the way one's conscience points" are two of the qualities he identifies as essential for the politician of the future. No two qualities could be less characteristic of Clinton's secondhand, derivative and, above all else, expedient leadership.
If Havel is the poet of democracy, Clinton is its most prosaic practitioner. Even before the prose became tawdry and descended to smoke-and-mirror definitions of "improper" relationships, Clinton had never risen to a poetic moment during his presidency. Not at any of the grand ceremonies he attended, not in his State of the Union speeches, not even in either of his inaugural addresses. The only memorable line of the Clinton presidency -- "no controlling legal authority" notwithstanding -- is the self-serving, conniving and oh-so-prosaic "the era of big government is over."
The hallmark of Havel's leadership has always been his moral authority. He has been the truth teller who has spoken powerfully about the "terrible danger" of political power -- "that, while pretending to confirm our existence and our identity, it will in fact rob us of them." In a speech he gave in Salzburg in July 1990, Havel painted a portrait of the political leader corrupted by power that is an uncanny description of the American president: "In short, he believes that he has something like an unconditional free pass to anywhere, even to heaven. Anyone who dares to scrutinize his pass is an enemy who does him wrong." Vast right-wing conspiracy anyone?
Even before Monica Lewinsky became a seemingly permanent fixture on the political scene, no one had ever so much as suggested that moral authority was a distinguishing characteristic of the Clinton presidency. The reasons go way beyond sex and marital infidelities and center on his infidelity to the nation, his consistent abuses of power -- Travelgate, Filegate, Lippogate -- and the resultant stonewalling, spinning and acting as if he were above the law.
Nonetheless -- and ironically -- the seeds of his downfall were sown when the Supreme Court unanimously refused to grant his request to be above the law in the Paula Jones case. What downfall, you ask? His approval ratings have never been higher. But his moral capital has never been lower. According to a Zogby poll this week, two in three voters say that the president should not be regarded as a role model for their children. As for the high approval ratings, they are a reflection of our priorities as we turn a blind eye on the crisis of our inner cities and our crumbling public schools. A prosperous economy has become the yardstick of our nation's health. It is the reductio ad absurdum of democratic politics -- our obsession with the stock market reminiscent of the communist commissars' obsession with how many million tons of steel were produced each year.
In one of his presidential addresses, Havel issued a warning about the way we live -- "a quiet life on the peak of a volcano" -- and the need for a moral, even a spiritual, underpinning to an efficient economy with citizens whose sense of responsibility goes beyond their own well-feathered little corners.
Havel is a great man but by no means a flawless one. In the fall of 1996, the Czech tabloid Blesk reported for the first time that there was more to the relationship between Havel and the 43-year-old actress Dagmar Veskrnova. She had allegedly been his mistress for a few years before his wife's death. Now, they are married.
So what is the difference between Havel's infidelities and Clinton's? The first is a leader's responsibility to take into account his country's unspoken ground rules. Once the "don't ask, don't tell" rules that prevail in Europe and dominated the Kennedy years were changed, Clinton must have known that by persisting in his behavior he was creating an environment of lies and cover-ups. The second difference is between a love affair and a series of mechanical sexual encounters. Can you imagine the president marrying Monica Lewinsky? If half the testimony of his sexual activities is true, the president is a hormone-hyped frat boy, for whom sex is reduced to plumbing.
Even Clinton's flaws are pedestrian -- a reckless, adolescent sexuality rather than a passionate affair of the heart. We can imagine a great novel about the president-poet and the Shakespearean actress, but I at least can only imagine a sitcom about Bill and Monica: "Married, With Intern." No wonder Harry Thomason flew back to Washington to "produce" the crisis.Such is the shrinking scale of politicians that even their flaws are tawdry. But then, even before Clinton succeeded in vulgarizing liaisons dangereuses, he had already vulgarized political leadership.
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