Vaclav Havel


A Politician Needs Principles
and Good Manners

By Vaclav Havel (October, 1991)

President Havel of Czechoslovakia received an honorary doctor of law degree on Sunday from New York University. Here are excerpts from his address:

NEW YORK - Please try to imagine the following, somewhat absurd situation: A literary critic known for his merciless judgment and piercing look, capable of discovering any false tone in a novel or story, is suddenly confronted with the task of writing a novel. Everyone is waiting with curiosity, and even a certain amount of malicious joy, to see how be succeeds in meeting the high targets he himself had set before, not knowing that one day he would have to make the effort to satisfy them.

For years I used to criticize practical politics as a mere technology of vying for power and as a purely pragmatic activity whose objective is not to perform selfless service to citizens in accordance with one's conscience, but only to win their favor with a view to staying in power or gaining more of it. As an independent intellectual, I was continuously developing my concepts of politics as a selfless service to fellow human beings and as morality in practice, a high-principled politics which I tentatively termed "nonpolitical politics."

Fate has indeed played a strange joke on me as if it were telling me that after having been so smart, I should now show all those whom I have criticized the right way to do it. No wonder my present position is hardly enviable: All my political activities, and maybe all the policies pursued by Czechoslovakia, are examined under the microscope I once built myself.

After a year and a half of the presidency in a country ridden with problems which presidents in stable democracies never dream of, I have not been compelled to retract anything. Not only have I not had to change my views but I have even been confirmed in them.

Despite all the political misery I am confronted with every day, it still is my profound conviction that the very essence of politics is not dirty; dirt is brought in only by wicked people. I admit that this is an area of human activity where the temptation to advance through unfair actions may be stronger than elsewhere, and which thus makes higher demands on human integrity. But it is not true at all that a politician cannot do without lying or intriguing. That is sheer nonsense, often spread by those who want to discourage people from taking an interest in public affairs.

Of course, politics, just as anywhere else in life, it is impossible and it would not be sensible always to say everything bluntly. Yet that does not mean one has to lie. What is needed here are tact, instinct and good taste. That, in fact, has been one of the things that surprised me most in the realm of high politics where good taste is more important than all the education in political science.

All this is a matter of form: knowing how long I should speak, when to begin and when to finish; how to say something politely that the other party does not like to hear; how to pick out what is essential at the given moment and to refrain from talking about nonessential things that nobody is interested in listening to; how to remain steadfast in one's position without offending the other party; how to create a friendly atmosphere in order to facilitate demanding negotiation; how to keep the conversation going without imposing oneself on one's partner or creating in him the impression that he is being ignored; how to to maintain a balance between the serious political subjects and the lighter, relaxing ones; knowing when and where to appear, and when and when to remain absent, and what measure of candor or restraint to choose.

It is also a matter of having a kind of instinct for the period, for the atmosphere that marks it, for the sentiments of the people, the nature of their troubles, and their mental disposition. That, too, is perhaps more important than various sociological surveys.

While education in political science, law, economics, history and culture is certainly invaluable for every politician, it is not, as I can see time and again, the most important thing. Much more important are establishing contact and maintaining a sense of measure; the ability to imagine oneself in one's partners position and to address him, and the capability of perception and the quick assessment of problems and the condition of human souls.

I certainly do not mean to imply that I possess an these qualities. But when a man has his heart in the right place and good taste, he can not only do well in politics but is even predetermined for it. If someone is modest and does not yearn for power, be is certainly not ill-equipped to engage in politics; on the contrary, he belongs there. What is needed in politics is not the ability to lie but rather the sensibility to know when, where, how and to whom to say things.

It is not true that people of high principles are ill-suited for politics. High principles have only to be accompanied by patience, consideration, a sense of measure and understanding for others. It is not true that only coldhearted, cynical, arrogant, haughting or brawling persons succeed in politics. Such people are naturally attracted by politics. In the end, however, politeness and good manners weigh more.

International Herald Tribune, October 29, 1991