Petula Dvorak (c) 2014, The Washington Post.
WASHINGTON — Right in the U.S. Capitol — amid the partisan posturing, immigration-fueled rancor and ominous shutdown threats, there was a moment of moral clarity.
For one brief hour Wednesday afternoon, our elected leaders gathered in the gilded, marbled Statuary Hall and stopped their bickering long enough to honor someone they all admire.
Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who served as the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, became only the fourth foreign leader represented in our grand Capitol building.
And for that small sliver of time between lunch and the next round of meetings, there were trumpets and flags and pomp to officially induct his sculpted bust into the hall. Leaders from both sides of the political aisle paid tribute to a man from a small country who gave power to the powerless, who governed on principles, not political expediency, who championed human rights and individual freedom with a dead-ahead moral compass.
At least the folks in Washington know it when they see it. Too bad it’s lost in the day-to-day political scrum, where victories are measured in elections won, rather than in solutions found, where triumph is a zero-sum game, and where huge numbers of American voters feel it’s too hopeless to cast a vote for change when they know what’s coming is simply more gridlock.
Havel, who died in 2011, may no longer have looked to America for inspiration if he were in office today. But it’s funny that, for a moment this week, America looked to him.
The Republicans love him as a slayer of communism: “He was a writer who exposed the communists, using the one weapon that they couldn’t match, and that was the truth,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as he stood in a glowing beacon of light at the ceremony unveiling the bust.
The Democrats love him as an idealist: “President Havel was a defender of freedom, a champion of human rights and an apostle of hope,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Havel was a man willing to go to jail rather than do what was morally wrong. And now he is among those honored in Statuary Hall alongside giants such as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Winston Churchill.
Here’s the irony. After Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top — Havel loved blues and rock — played a few licks in his honor, and after his widow, Dagmar Havlova, dabbed away her tears, the elected officials who gathered to praise Havel returned to business as usual. This week that revolved around the contentious issue of immigration, as President Barack Obama announced his decision to use his executive powers to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation.
It was Czech immigrants and the children of Czech immigrants who pushed to have Havel honored.
One of them was Fred Malek, the son of a Czech immigrant beer truck driver. Malek went to West Point, served as an Army Ranger, advised U.S. presidents, and worked as president of Marriott and chief executive of Northwest Airlines before he co-owned the Texas Rangers baseball team with George W. Bush. He now serves as chairman of the board at the American Friends of the Czech Republic.
Our country welcomed Malek’s relatives with open arms. When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, the United States let two tourists — my parents — stay and become citizens.
In 1949, the country welcomed the family of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, also a Czech immigrant, who has always been a great champion of Havel, hosting him in her Washington home when he first came to our country after the communist regime fell.
In America, we make room for this, celebrating and honoring our roots. Because most of us come from somewhere else. That is at the core of our nation.
And as we gear up for another political fight over immigration that threatens to deadlock our government, it might be wise for our nation’s leaders to take a stroll to Statuary Hall, to look into Havel’s squinty eyes and consider the morally correct thing to do.