PRAGUE, Czech Republic — The Communist Party still holds about 13 percent of the seats in Parliament. The recently deposed prime minister describes the new U.S. economic stimulus plan as a “road to hell,” and the nation’s president doesn’t believe in global warming or in cooperating with the European Union.
Add it all up and Prague may have seemed like a potentially hostile place for President Barack Obama to visit and offer a major policy speech Sunday morning.
But, as many Americans have experienced over the last decade, the actions of government officials — even in a representative government — oftentimes differ from the majority opinion of a people.
In Hradcanske Namesti, with the telegenic steeples of Prague Castle’s St. Vitus’ Cathedral as a backdrop, President Obama delivered a 30-minute speech to a predominantly supportive and enthusiastic crowd about Czech-American relations, nuclear arms proliferation and efforts for peace.
Getting in to see Obama was half the fun.
My roommate, Will, and I arrived at Prague Castle at 7:30 a.m., less than a half hour after the gates opened. Still, we barely managed to squeeze our way within about 200 feet of the president’s flower-festooned podium in Hradcany Square.
Long wait a sign of enthusiasm
First, we waited in what passes for a “line” in the Czech Republic and then underwent a metal detector inspection — as well as a firm frisking — before entering the magnificent square. There, we were to wait for another two hours before there was any sign of the president. If this isn’t at least somewhat of an indication of the kind of international enthusiasm the new Obama administration has conjured up, I don’t know what is.
It was estimated that about 30,000 spectators were present and, at a glance, it appeared to me that about 30 to 40 percent of them were under age 25. By my reckoning, I’d say that about 65 percent of the onlookers were Czech, 20 percent American students and travelers, with the remainder of the crowd composed of Italians, Brits and Germans, among others.
With my luck, I ended up standing behind a group of five soccer moms who had just arrived from Spokane. They spent the entire two-hour waiting period before the speech discussing this week’s episodes of “Oprah.”
I second-guessed my decision to wake up at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
As for Obama’s speech, it was, in some ways, safe and delicately worded. On the other hand, he didn’t sidestep the reasons he came to Bohemia. The president didn’t simply wish to try the goulash and pilsner. He had an agenda: supporting a Czech-based missile defense system, asserting U.S. leadership in the fight against nuclear proliferation and, to a lesser extent, discussing the state of the world economy and energy matters.
A lackadaisical Czech bluegrass band did its best to suck the life from the anxiously waiting crowd, but the energy immediately escalated as the president finally arrived to hearty applause, accompanied by a sea of waving Czech and American flags. He began his speech by touting first lady Michelle Obama’s beauty and thoroughly butchering the name of the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk.
Then, he delved into the serious matters at hand. He outlined the means and the desired ends of his economic strategy to optimistic, but wary, even lukewarm, applause. He moved on to discuss the need for alternative sources of energy, an area where most of the Czech people seem to differ from their admittedly hardheaded President Vaclav Klaus, who holds a skeptical view on climate change.
Indeed, the show of support for the U.S. president will serve to further isolate Klaus domestically. The Czech president doesn’t have much power, other than the power to speak his mind. But Klaus is considered, especially among the younger crowd, to be on the fringes even here in his own country.
The main portion of Obama’s speech was devoted to NATO cooperation in fighting terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The president warned against a “fatalistic” view of the world in which the existence of nuclear weapons is inescapable. He received a thunderous response when he expressed “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
On the whole, whenever Obama veered from the previous Bush administration, whether subtly or blatantly, he was greeted with overwhelming support.
Opposition, though, to missile defense system
The biggest hoorays of the morning came as Obama reiterated a new culture of cooperation and international joint action that many Europeans, especially Czechs, feel America had largely abandoned. The most opposition from the crowd to his words arose with the mentioning of a proposed missile defense system that the Polish and Czech governments have agreed to host.
Shouts of “No Radar!” were heard and balloons with slogans on them were tossed into the crowd, although many were grabbed and popped almost immediately by those who obviously didn’t feel the same way.
The missile defense system splits the Czech citizenry. Some with a more international bent think the “radar” is a necessary evil to check any Russian designs. A more leftist, but nationalistic, group opposes such a defense system, fearing it will provoke the Russians.
(Czechs generally loathe the Russians and really don’t have any problem telling you so.)
Overall, the day was good-natured and a positive experience for most present, with some of my friends going so far as to use the words “carnival” or “party” to describe the event.
But I think President Obama scored points with the Czechs because he challenged them on the missile defense system and on embracing an internationalist perspective. He said things that, I’d guess, he knew might be unpopular. He was sympathetic but straightforward. I think people respected that.
I have been studying in Prague for almost three months and have not found a better way to sum up the Czech feeling about America and its new president than a quote I got from a student named Petr, who I had the pleasure of sharing a beer with at a local pub.
He said: “People here used to love America, but with Bush it started to go sour. Now that Obama is here and America has a new face for the world to see, I think things will get better. People want to like America again.”
It is through these cautiously optimistic sunglasses that Czechs, shoulder to shoulder, viewed Obama Sunday in one of Prague’s most historic and picturesque squares.
Henry Weiner, of St. Paul, is a University of Wisconsin-Madison junior studying this year in Prague. He is the son of MinnPost writer Jay Weiner.