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?

Published March 8, 2000 11:00AM (EST)

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.

By Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

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