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Why We Should Care That the New Czech President Wears a Bow Tie

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We don't know who will emerge victorious in the Czech Presidential election to be decided at the end of the month. Things are neck and neck. But Karel Schwarzenberg, aristocrat and underdog, is clearly the sentimental favourite. That Schwarzenberg is still in the race at all is thanks in part to the support of young Czechs.

At first glance, it's hard to figure. Schwarzenberg cuts a grand fatherly figure. He's 75-years-old. His trade mark is a bow tie. He's a prince, literally; he kisses a lady's hand in greeting, and generally comes off as an unassuming, slightly odd ball eccentric. As my young colleague Dalibor Rohac, fan and fellow countryman of the candidate notes in the Wall Street Journal, Schwarzenberg can seem "erratic, occasionally dozing off in public."

Not very edgy, or particularly cool, right?

And yet, totally, apparently. 

There are two big reasons why a Schwarzenberg win should charm us all. 

First, in an era of bling, celebrity, and growing cynicism about politics, Schwarzenberg embodies a rare combination of values: he represents authenticity and integrity, a certain old-world elegance, without taking himself too seriously. He's Austro-Hungarian nobility, yet perfectly at home with a pilsner in the local pub.  

Schwarzenberg was an associate of the late Czech President (dissident and playwright) Václav Havel. He proved himself during the Cold War to be a man of principle and independent thought.

Since then? 

Whether on Burma, Cuba, Syria, or Belarus, Schwarzenberg has been a tireless advocate for democracy and human rights. He's not a grand-stander, or pontificator. He's the real deal. I know this in part because, as president a few years ago of the U.S.-funded media broadcast group Radio Free Europe/Radio (RFE/RL) based in Prague, I was able to witness first-hand how, as foreign minister, Schwarzenberg would help endangered journalists from the Middle East to the former Soviet Union. Not famous figures, most of these reporters. They were generally unknown to the international scene. Schwarzenberg's assistance was always cheerful, mostly behind the scenes. And critical. He saved lives.

There's a second reason why the prospect of a Schwarzenberg presidency is an inspired idea. Schwarzenberg belongs broadly to a generation of dissidents who started entering Czech politics a quarter of a century ago as Communism was falling apart. These sudden career changes were an extraordinary accident of history. 

Schwarzenberg had indeed already been involved in politics (in Austria), but his true passion was human rights. Schwarzenberg's friend Michael Zantovsky, another Havel confident, began as a psychologist, journalist, and literary translator. He was elected to the Czech Senate and is today Ambassador in London. Still another from the Havel circle, Alexandr (Sasha) Vondra, became deputy prime minister and served until recently as defense minister. In the 1980s Vondra was manager of an underground rock band. The new post-Communist era in the 1990s was defined by such types. They brought exuberance, conviction, and loads of idealism. 

I recall a small dinner we hosted for Schwarzenberg at RFE/RL in Prague a few years ago. Over drinks late in the evening he regaled us with stories about his friend Václav Havel, who was still alive at the time. Schwarzenberg reflected, admiringly: "Like all of us, Vaclav has his many flaws, but on all the truly big issues he has always been right." Maybe that's what Czech voters, including young people, are sensing about Schwarzenberg: a feel for getting the big things right. 

There was more wine and beer that night, plenty of laughter, and colorful adventure stories from journalists around the table. Now that I think about it, it's possible that Schwarzenberg can listen as well as he speaks. A rare politician indeed.