The president America needs is, unfortunately, Czech, and the Constitution rules him out. He is also, sadly for the world, dead. Václav Havel, playwright and leader of those who opposed the Czechoslovakian communist regime — and went to prison for it several times — was elected the free nation’s first president after the 1989 “velvet revolution,” in which the regime just gave up. He served his nation as president from 1989 to 2003, and died in 2011.
A few days ago, after reading through lots of news about current American politics, I came upon Havel’s memoir “To the Castle and Back” in a thrift store. Fifty pages in, I thought, “Why can’t we have a president like this?”
One of the great men of this and the last century, Havel actually thought about the world and what was right to do, and not just what would get him what he wanted. And one of those right things to do, probably the most important thing to do, was to tell the truth, all the time and even when you wanted to hide it. Which would be a great thing in an American president. But.
Trump lies like the rest of us breath. He differs from his peers in presidential politics in degree, not in kind. He lies more blatantly, more carelessly, more contemptuously, but politics provides many different ways to lie.
A politician can lie directly, or he can twist the narrative in his own favor. Dodging questions and controlling events so no one can challenge the message, for one. Turning every important question into an excuse to play to a culture-warring audience, for another. Promising great things you know you can’t achieve, for a third. Everyone does it.
In his first major address as president of Czechoslovakia, Havel told the people, “I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.” As far as I can find, he didn’t.
How great that would be. Living with a politics of lies feels like living with a thick fog in which you can’t breath easily or see clearly. It’s like living inside the bass drum of a Norwegian death metal band, when you can’t think for the noise. It’s like being Ingrid Bergman’s character in “Gaslight.”
Havel had some advantage over our politicians in the life he’d chosen to live, because it taught him how important truth was, simply to be fully human. His belief in truth had sustained him in the long years of standing against the regime. He and his comrades had been able to sustain their resistance as long and as patiently as they did because they believed the truth had to be told and would do good when it was told.
“Repeating this defiant truth made sense in itself, regardless of whether it was ever appreciated, or victorious, or repressed for the hundredth time,” he said. He explained his writing an open letter to the head of the regime in 1975, which could have easily got him put away in a prison camp: “I simply wrote it in the belief that it might have, let’s say, a certain ‘socio-hygienic’ significance. In general, I believe it always makes sense to tell the truth, in all circumstances.”
He and his comrades also believed the truth would eventually triumph, though maybe long after they were gone. They believed it was a seed that “once sown would one day take root and send forth a shoot. No one knew when. But it would happen someday.” Even a totalitarian government couldn’t forever suppress the truth, if people kept insisting on saying it.
“Truth purges one of fear,” he said a few months after the Velvet Revolution. He and his fellow dissidents “were able to maintain an inner perspective, a willingness to endure, a sense of proportion, an ability to understand and forgive others, and a light heart only because we were speaking the truth. Otherwise, we might have perished from despair.”
There are many other reasons for wishing we had someone like Havel as president. His long essay “The Power of the Powerless” is one of the great works of political writing in the last hundred years, looking carefully at what a humane and democratic politics requires.
Havel became president in an historical accident, one of the rare times a nation enjoys the right man at the right time. Our political system won’t produce a man like him. We won’t get someone of his intellectual and moral depth, and our political system will eat alive anyone who insists on telling the truth all the time.
But couldn’t we have someone a little like Václav Havel? Someone who’ll try to tell the truth, someone willing to lose rather than lie? Someone we can trust?
(David Mills is the associate editorial page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: firstname.lastname@example.org.)