Books of 2019 – Number 11 and 12 – Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow and Havel: A Life by Michael Zantovsky

Books #11 and #12 were quite the projects, and the fact that I read them simultaneously made their stories even more amazing to me. I actually started reading Washington, A Life by Ron Chernow when we were traveling to and in Prague, Amsterdam, and Brussels last year. I would read it on my iPad and on my phone, so when I did not finish it on my trip, it became my insomnia book at home – the thing I would read on my phone when I couldn’t sleep. I chose Havel, A Life by Michael Zantovsky to read because of those travels last year. Since visiting Prague, I have been fascinated by the history of Eastern Europe and particularly Prague. A few months ago, I read Madeleine Albright’s autobiography, Prague Winter and it just made me want to read more.

Both of these books tell remarkable stories that left me baffled that the end result was what it was. George Washington was a flawed man. He was always in debt, he doubted himself, he was proud to a fault, he made some bad choices. On the other hand, he was a leader that commanded universal respect and trust. He led an army of soldiers that seemed to be always starving, freezing, sick, and otherwise suffering in some way, shape or form. His army fought the most powerful country in the world. Somehow, with some key victories and some lucky breaks, they won. But that was not the end of the battle. Next, there was a government to form and people to convince. George Washington wanted to go back home to Virginia and rebuild his home and life. Instead of doing that, he agreed to be President of a country whose people were not all on board with this form of democracy that was being attempted. He held the experiment together with the same gravity of leadership that he had on the battlefield. In doing so, he relied on key allies like Alexander Hamilton to craft the strategy. He was the figurehead. It worked. When he refused a third term as President, his health was failing. He went home to Mount Vernon without the promise of many happy years ahead of him. He did give his life to his country.

More than 200 years later, Vaclav Havel, a playwright, led a peaceful revolution that upended Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Again, this story is so unlikely. When the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948, the country became a land of repression. The rich cultural history of Eastern Europe was smothered under Soviet Rule. The pockets of protest, however, never went away. Most often, these pockets included the artists and intellectuals of the land. Havel was a part of this for years. He spent years in prison for his beliefs. He and his compatriots were fearless in their struggle. When in 1989, hundreds of thousands of Czech people flowed into Wenceslas Square, shaking their keys and demanding their home back, Havel was chosen as the President to figure out what to do with this land that was free for the first time in fifty years. Like Washington, he was not a politician, but he was a leader. Like Washington, he was flawed, but the passion of freedom drove him.

Having a playwright as a country’s president provides rich opportunity for quotable quotes. One that stood out for me was, “Hope is not a conviction that something will turn out well, but a certainly that something has a meaning regardless of how it turns out.”

These are books 11 and 12 of my goal to read 52 books this year.

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