Copyright 2011 Ben S. Pollock
I met Vaclav Havel once, while he was president of Czechoslovakia. We were in a castle.
Oh, and I avoided shaking hands with him.
Now, he’s dead. Not that I’d ever had a chance to renew the, uh, acquaintance.
In September 1992, I was in Europe for a traveling journalism seminar, whose lead sponsor was New York University. There were around a dozen of us. For nine days we traveled from London to Bonn to Prague and Bratislava, and Warsaw and Lodz. Some were wire editors, compiling international and national wire service material for our media outlets. This set included me, international editor (as my boss called the wire job) for Little Rock’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, folks from the Austin paper and one of the Seattle papers, The Christian Science Monitor and a producer for ABC News. The others were reporters and columnists, such as from NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
I would have felt way out of my league, but all of these men and women were friendly, helpful and enjoyed teasing me about the chances that Gov. Bill Clinton could be elected president that November.
The intent of the seminar was helping us understand the new democracies of Eastern Europe, especially as they were in the midst of forming openly elected legislatures, democratically chosen leaders and, importantly, re-creating the agencies that maintain roads, enforce laws, run the military and smooth out trade disputes (etc.), from the rigidity and corruption of communist bureaucracies to fairer, more efficient models.
Meeting elected officials, many of whom were former freedom fighters, was fascinating. Listening to economists explaining how to correct decades of government ineptitude got old. But I took notes and photos, and my five-piece analysis (with three pictures) comprised 1 1/2 pages of the Sunday Perspective (opinion) section on Oct. 18, 1992. It even got a 1A tease box.
Outside of travel guides, all I managed in researching before the trip was Havel’s Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990. These were dense, closely argued essays; Vaclav Havel was known as a cutting edge playwright, but his nonfiction was the key to his leadership.
On the second day of the Prague leg, we boarded a couple of vans for Stirin Castle. Maybe it was a half-hour drive. The building, a large old structure but probably rather small for a castle, housed the Institute for East-West Studies. (Nothing online about the institute now, and the castle seems to be a hotel).
We were told by the NYU staff who ran the program that we would watch but not participate in a symposium this institute was hosting. Havel was invited, but it was not known if he’d make it.
We were ushered into a large room with an open rectangle of banquet tables. The session already had begun. We sat in chairs lined up against a wall. At the center of the front table sat Havel, talking and gesturing. With a translator, we listened and took notes.
The program ended in an hour or two, and we filed out into a hallway. The main NYU guy came out, with news. Havel would come see us American journalists in the hall for two minutes at most, as he was running late.
It surprised me that my colleagues’ dispassionate objectivity vanished. These were not the biggest names in journalism, but most worked for the best journalistic enterprises, thus were qualifed, experienced, quick and smart. They treated President Havel like they had backstage passes to see a rock star — shaking his hand, pushing reporters’ notebooks toward him for autographs, a few snapped pictures — all wearing huge, nervous grins.
I hung back.
I couldn’t approach this great man — a genuine hero for freedom but an artist and intellectual as well — as my colleagues did.
I was happy just to be that close. I’d never forget this trip anyway, but this moment pushed it over the top.
My head and heart argued against touching him, for different reasons. I saw it in the moment, and I see it now. My head says reporters don’t swoon. My heart sees the celebrity as a hollow gesture.
Then the same thing happened a few months later. On Election Day 1992 I head to my polling place before work, allowing lots of time for the long line. I wasn’t needed in the newsroom until mid-afternoon.
Dunbar Recreation Center is the poll for the family that lives in the Governor’s Mansion. The governor and his wife would be there to vote, who knew when, flying in after out-of-state last-minute campaign stops. I brought My Beloved, at the time my fiance, who already voted in west Little Rock, just in case. My apartment, the Bengalow, was two blocks from the mansion.
Rather than the lobby, the tables and booths were set in Dunbar’s gym. Suddenly there was a rush of people, and I recognized a few — in the pack of news photographers. They’re directed toward a section of bleachers and they set up. In a moment, Bill, Hillary and Chelsea float in, surrounded by Secret Service and aides. They head directly to us civilians for hugs and handshakes and shouts of good wishes.
MB goes over to shake hands with Hillary.
I hung back.
Eventually the first family of Arkansas get in a line, then poll workers move them to the head of the line (Chelsea was too young to vote). A few minutes later, I mark my ballot.
What was I thinking? I thought, this man was going to be elected president in a few hours. I’d shaken his hand before, at a news conference in town, in a restaurant in town. This was different, you could feel it in the air. …
With Havel and the Clintons, my head reminded me that I’m a journalist, and obligated to be neutral, especially in public. Both times, my heart knocked: What an empty symbolic gesture, autographs that’ll end up in a file, a handshake that, what, I can brag for having snagged?
I have tried to be normal: Nearly 15 years later, April 2007, Salman Rushdie spoke in Fayetteville. MB and I crashed an after-party-slash-signing. I brought my copy of The Satanic Verses. I waited in line, we shook hands and he signed the volume. He smiled at my book, one of the earlier paperback editions, he said.
No one may care, but I have proof I met Rushdie, sitting on a shelf nearby. Yet I am confident I’d be just as proud to just tell people I saw him up close at that party. There is a line, though: Seeing him lecture to a couple thousand people at the Fayetteville Town Center was not remarkable.
Vaclav Havel died Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011, at age 75, after many years of lung disease. MB asked if I regret not shaking his hand. I say no, that just to have been a few feet away and also witnessed journalists dropping their cynical guard for two minutes is an anecdote of a lifetime.
But what was this anyway but being overcome with shyness in a real castle after the Soviet Union finally fell and here was a man who helped crack the facade of Moscow. Yes I do regret not grasping his hand, not pushing paper and pen at him. No I don’t Yes I do No I don’t.