A Farewell to Politics

Václav Havel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

The following speech was given by President Havel in New York on September 19, 2002, at the Graduate Center of the City University, on the occasion of his last official trip to the United States as President of the Czech Republic.

I still have vivid memories of the concert almost thirteen years ago—in February 1990—when New York welcomed me as the freshly minted president of Czechoslovakia. It was not, of course, just to honor me personally. Through me, it was a way of honoring all those fellow citizens of mine who, by nonviolent action, were able to overthrow the vicious regime that ruled over our country. And it was also to honor all those who, before me, or with me, had resisted this regime, again by nonviolent means. Many freedom-loving people throughout the world saw the victory of the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution as heralding hope for a more humane world, one in which poets might have as powerful a voice as bankers.

Our gathering today, no less warm and impressive, quite naturally leads me to the question of whether I have changed in those almost thirteen years, of what that incomprehensibly long sojourn as president has done to me, and in what ways the countless experiences I have lived through in these tumultuous times have changed me.

And I’ve discovered an astonishing thing: although it might be expected that this wealth of experience would have given me more and more self-assurance, confidence, and polish, the exact opposite is true. In that time, I have become a good deal less sure of myself, a good deal more humble. You may not believe this, but every day I suffer more and more from stage fright; every day, I am more afraid that I won’t be up to the job, or that I’ll make a hash of it. It’s harder and harder for me to write my speeches, and when I do write them, I am more fearful than ever that I will hopelessly repeat myself, over and over again. More and more often, I am afraid that I will fall woefully short of expectations, that I will somehow reveal my own lack of qualifications for the job, that despite my good faith I will make ever greater mistakes, that I will cease to be trustworthy and therefore lose the right to do what I do.

And while other presidents, younger than me in terms of their time in office, delight in every opportunity to meet each other, or with other important people, to appear on television or deliver a speech, all of this simply makes me more fearful. At times, the very thing I should be welcoming as a great opportunity I deliberately try to avoid in the almost irrational fear that I will, in one way or another, squander the opportunity and perhaps even harm a good cause. In short, I seem more and more dubious, even to myself. And the more enemies I have, the more I side with them…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.