Prague's native daughter

Once her stint as secretary of state is up, will Madeleine Albright give up the perks of Washington life to give her native Czech Republic a boost?

Topics:

One year from now, Madeleine Albright might respectfully dismiss pursuing the Czech presidency, as she did during her visit to Prague this week. The U.S. secretary of state visited the land of her birth to mark the 150th anniversary of Czech national hero Tomas Masaryk’s birth, as well as the first anniversary of the nation’s entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Once her time as secretary of state ends next January along with the Clinton presidency, Albright can look forward to the comfortable life of a top-level Washington influence peddler. That might be far too appealing a future to allow for any fanciful notions of giving a small, young country instant international credibility and prestige.

But no matter what Albright says at this point, in public or private, the idea of her succeeding Vaclav Havel as president of the Czech Republic is far too intriguing to dismiss outright.

“I am not a candidate, will not be a candidate,” Albright said Tuesday in Prague. “I am greatly flattered by President Havel’s comments. But I think my position is clear. My heart is in two places, but America is where I belong.”

Her denials themselves mean nothing, of course. What else could she say? As a sitting U.S. secretary of state, anything less than a denial would dangerously undermine her ability to conduct diplomacy in the months ahead. Later on, tradition might argue against plunging into the political fray abroad. But Albright would not even have to campaign for the job Havel keeps talking her up for. It is appointed by Parliament.

There’s no doubt that Havel has been up to some political game-playing in continuing to push the idea of an Albright candidacy, even after she poured cold water on it. Twice on Monday, he did his best to advance the idea, first in an interview with Czech television — with Albright standing next to him — and later at a private dinner.

“I personally would consider it excellent if she were to run,” Havel said. “It would bring a fresh international spirit to our somewhat muddy political environment. She is a person who understands this Czech world and would be able to consider it in a broad international context.”



Czechs are certainly looking for leadership. The Czech economy has faltered, and faith in the political process has plummeted. Albright’s connections could also bring a great deal of investment into the country, where economic woes have cast doubt on its ability to successfully bid for a spot in the European Union. As president, Albright could pick up the phone and talk to any world leader.

There is another potential lure in her changing her mind: Her potential to redefine notoriously sexist Czech politics. One could hardly say that Albright, the highest-ranking woman public official in U.S. history, hasn’t already done her share of trail-blazing. But women in the Czech Republic badly need her example. Opinion surveys say Czech women do not feel greatly oppressed or disadvantaged. But the lack of women in Czech politics is so pronounced that a group has organized a “shadow cabinet” to publicize the point — and to mock Prime Minister Milos Zeman’s outright claim that men make better political leaders.

“You have to understand that it’s a post-communist country, and as such it tends to be more patriarchal,” said former top Havel aide Jiri Pehe, now director of New York University’s Prague branch. “It’s lagging behind in its social structures.” But even so, Pehe says, the country stands out among its peers. “You could compare the Czech Republic with Poland or Hungary or Slovakia where they had more female politicians, and Poland even had a [woman] prime minister. I think it’s very strange, because this country is otherwise quite liberal in many ways.”

Every time Albright’s name is mentioned, it makes likely candidate Vaclav Klaus, the Parliament speaker and Havel’s political enemy, look diminished by comparison. In fact, the talk in Prague as Albright left town Wednesday for Bosnia was of Klaus’ disappearance. He left the country for a visit to the U.S. within hours of Albright’s arrival, spurring talk among Czechs that he for one seems to take the possibility of an Albright candidacy seriously.

“From the Klaus side people are talking about this with a lot of alarm,” said Alan Levy, editor in chief of the Prague Post and author of a book on Czechoslovakia, “So Many Heroes.” “He’s apparently in America now to avoid meeting her face to face.”

Pehe took open pleasure in noting how people were reacting to Klaus’ apparent skittishness. “If the spotlight is on anyone but him, he just can’t cope with that,” Pehe said. “Klaus didn’t want to be in the position of being reproached by a possible presidential candidate. I think he probably takes it more seriously than even his supporters know, otherwise he could have stayed here and faced her.”

Klaus’ low public standing — not to mention his relative obscurity — explains why ordinary Czechs are looking elsewhere for candidates.

Last December, a crowd of 50,000 gathered in Wenceslas Square to mark the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that delivered then-Czechoslovakia from communist rule. The crowed directed much of its ire against Klaus and Zeman.

The December protests in Prague and 20 other cities were inspired by a petition written up by six leaders of the ’89 protests. “The current political representatives have brought the country into a profound moral, social, political and economic crisis, and they seriously threaten the integration of the Czech Republic into the European Union,” it read.

That sort of crisis atmosphere might not be easy for Albright to ignore, given her strong ties to the country and its turbulent history. She was born Marie Jana Korbelova in Prague in 1937, and fled with her parents to England two years later to escape Hitler. Czech was her first language, her mother tongue, and even now the language remains a part of her.

“Her Czech is very good,” said Pehe. “In that sense she is absolutely connected with the Czechs. You can hear a sort of accent there, but grammatically and otherwise it’s perfect. It’s in a way cute, the way she speaks. It makes it sound very special.”

Albright underscored her passionate connection to the tradition of Czech leadership during her visit. She told students at Masaryk University in Brno on Monday, “Although President Masaryk died when I was 4 months old, in every other sense, I grew up with him. My family spoke about him. My father worked for his son. He inspired an entire generation of Czechoslovaks by his life, his beliefs and his works. There was a time people thought he should be president of the world, as it was known in the ’30s. He was the philosopher president. He acted like a president. He led like a president. He even looked like a president. And he was also, in his way, a foremost feminist, taking his wife’s maiden name as his middle one.”

It may be easy for people in Washington to dismiss the idea of Albright giving up her social position in Washington, her access and perquisites, to run off to a small country — one which many in Congress could not accurately locate on a map. Wednesday’s Washington Post headline cracked: “Havel Has an Albright Idea,” which seemed to capture the titter-into-the-hand reaction of many to Havel’s suggestion.

As veteran political analyst Jackson Janes of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies put it, “It’s hard for me imagine that someone who has spent her entire life in Washington, someone who is a tenured professor at Georgetown, would uproot herself like that.”

But it’s always easier to dismiss a bold, new idea than to give it time to develop. Madeleine Albright would probably be insane to run off to Prague to try to build democracy. But there are worse forms of insanity.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>