20th Anniversary: Me and Václav Klaus
Rubbing shoulders and other parts with politicos
Posted: January 6, 2011
I first met President Václav Klaus May 10, 1996. I had been on the news staff of The Prague Post for a few months, and Klaus had been deputy prime minister of the Czechoslovak Federal Republic and then prime minister of the Czech Republic since 1992.
When I joined the Post, I was told I'd become an instant star if I managed to get an interview with him. Because a few of his political foes had contributed to the Post, he believed our office was a nest of left-wing agitators, pinko hippies and communist fellow travelers. So he had never spoken to anyone on the staff.
My chance for stardom came on the first day of the three-day Congress of Prague, which launched the New Atlantic Initiative, a trans-Atlantic neo-con love-in with ties to such right-wing outfits as the American Enterprise Institute, the John Olin Foundation and the Project for the New American Century. Klaus was to make the opening speech.
I was checking my notes in the Černín Palace when a Czech colleague nudged me and said, "Here's your chance. Klaus is here, and he is desperate for journalists."
I looked up, and there stood the great man and a nervous aide, waiting for some journalist to pay attention to him. The reason was the upcoming general election, in which his Civic Democratic-led center-right coalition was in danger of losing its majority.
So I approached him and introduced myself and the publication I represented.
His eyes grew wide, and his moustache bristled. "The Prague Post?" he growled. "Why, 90 percent of what you write is not true."
"Prime Minister Klaus," I replied quickly, "I write the other 10 percent."
Not a flicker of a smile disturbed that stony countenance, no hint that he had even heard what I thought was a pretty fair comeback, given the situation. Still, he did consent to answer a few questions about the upcoming election. But his answers were so high-handed, so full of bluster and hot air, that they were virtually useless.
I ran into Klaus several times afterward in the lobby of Parliament, when it was still possible for journalists to rub shoulders and other parts of the body with senior Czech officials. But each time I asked him to reply to a question or two, he would brush me off with his customary rudeness, once shouting at the top of his voice, "I don't need The Prague Post."
Such as it was, my revenge came a little more than a year later, when I was working as the Prague correspondent for Newsweek. My bureau chief, Andrew Nagorski, wanted an interview with Klaus, who was now head of a shaky minority government. His spokesman demanded the interview be put on the back page, a spot of prestige. Since that had been the magazine's intention anyway, it posed no problem. And he said we could have no more than 20 minutes, since the prime minister was a very busy man.
The interview went very well. The night before, over dinner, Andy and I had discussed how we would double-team him, and at several points during our conversation, which ran for nearly an hour, Klaus leaned far back in his chair and shot his spokesman a look that said, "Get me outta here."
There were a number of framed paintings and photographs stacked on the floor of his office, as if he were getting ready to move out. One of us asked Klaus about them, and he said something like, "Don't worry. They will be on the walls soon."
He was wrong. His coalition broke apart a few weeks later, after a particularly nasty party funding scandal convinced the heads of the two minor parties, Josef Lux and Jan Kalvoda, not to give in to Klaus' demands. Kalvoda told me that, to let Klaus know that the coalition talks had failed, he and Lux had taken out their keys and jingled them, in the manner of the Velvet Revolution demonstrators on Wenceslas Square ringing out their former rulers.
But, of course, Klaus is having the last laugh. He's still on top, bloodied but unbowed.
After the collapse of his government, some members of his Civic Democrats attempted to overthrow him as party head at the December 1997 party congress in Poděbrady. Current Prime Minister Petr Nečas, one of my sources at the time, was a member of this group.
I ran into Nečas a few minutes after Klaus was handily re-elected party chairman. He admitted he had finally voted for Klaus.
"It just wasn't the right time," Nečas said.
But Klaus' political longevity was never a matter of timing. Since 1989, there has only been one Czech politician who understood that the first priority of power was to maintain power, and who was willing to do anything - anything at all - to do so, and that was Klaus. The unhappy truth is that he has never met his match.
The dude abides. Let's grant him at least that.
- The author was a news reporter and columnist for The Prague Post from 1996 to 2001. He went on to work for Newsweek and recently returned to Prague after working for 10 years as the Paris correspondent for the German Press Agency (DPA).
Siegfried Mortkowitz can be reached at
Tags: klaus, 20th anniversary, prague post, politics, czech politics, history, ods, government, 1990s.