Vaclav Havel, New Year’s Day speech, 1990


One of this week’s subjects is inaugural addresses. From Havel we learn three things:

  1. A good opening does half your work.
  2. If you are presenting yourself as a change agent, make sure you change something.
  3. The only way to say something real is to say it. You can’t fake substance with fancy words.

My dear fellow citizens,
For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.

I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.

The rest is here.

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Vaclav Havel, New Year’s Day speech, 1990

  1. Fantastic speech from Havel but he had a lot to work with. Moving from totalitarian to democratic government presents a lot of room for soaring rhetoric about freedom, which I always enjoy.

    I don’t know about good openings doing half the work but I am certain you just need a really good line or two and people will remember your speech for ages. And if your second and third points are true, Obama won’t be delivering an effective address because he hasn’t delivered change and he seems to love vacuous comments/lines.

    I don’t think Obama and his staff would go far wrong if they had a look at Reagan’s first inaugural, he talked a lot about economy/war, but Obama would obviously have to put his pro-government spin on it.

  2. I was host to a young (compared to me ) man from Germany for a few days last week. He had run for and won a local council seat for the Green Party ( in Bremen ) in 1988 when the Green Party was more than green. We were remarking on the oratorical skills of Obama and whether oratory mattered without the capacity to act on it. He said he was present for Havel’s speech on that day and that it had changed his life.

  3. What a fabulous thing to read. I’ll spend the next few days savoring it, then place it in suspended animation within my memory in anticipation of the opus of the forthcoming federal budget.

  4. I’ve been a big fan of Havel’s thinking since the early 90’s, when I first purchased “Summer Meditations” and then “Letters to —-?—-“. He has a very “humanist” and positive view of the potential of politics, and of people. What was most remarkable is that he never wrote in English, so whoever translated did an exceptional job of relaying Havel’s positive message. A message which, by the way, he wrote even while imprisoned by the Communist regime.

    Reading this piece, it is hard not to be struck by the parallels to today’s issues. I don’t see a lot of difference between a communist/socialist “totalitarian” regime, and the “totalitarian” regime currently (although lately, not so much) imposed by “free market” ideologies. For example, people felt helpless and apathetic in the face of “totalitarianism”, just as many today feel that there must be more to life in civil society than reflexive genuflecting to Mammon, but find little support for that notion in their immediate communities.

    Havel has recently been hospitalized for “respiratory” problems, and may not be with us for much longer; he is a long time heavy smoker (who can blame one for seeking what ever small “comforts” one could find in stark circumstances, whether it be the communist “paradise” or prison?) and he’s probably accepted his fate with equanimity. I just think that he’s a remarkably fortunate man to have seen his visions come to fruition…not perfectly, but still. I’m guessing he got that from writing plays and seeing them produced, as well.

    • His translator is Canada’s own Paul Wilson.

    • ‘I don’t see a lot of difference between a communist/socialist “totalitarian” regime, and the “totalitarian” regime currently (although lately, not so much) imposed by “free market” ideologies.’

      Havel does.

      • Well, in both cases you can’t print articles suggesting a radical change in the structure of society.

        The short-term difference is that in a totalitarian society the police beat you up, the security service puts you under suveillance, the authorities blackmail your wife, and the judges put you in prison. And eventually the people make you a folk hero and president.

        The medium-term difference is that in a democracy you can hope that change is possible, but in a totalitarian dictatorship no change is possible until you overthrow the totalitarian regime.

  5. An inspiring, frank address. Thank you for bringing it to our attention, Paul. Oh to have a political leader who is not shy to just tell it like it is.