Jiri Vejvoda - learning to interpret Vaclav Havel's coughs


At the end of January it will be exactly a year since Vaclav Havel stepped down after thirteen years as president, first of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic. One person who spent a lot of time with Havel during his early days as president just after the fall of communism, is the journalist Jiri Vejvoda, now Czech Radio's chief producer of arts programmes. Here he remembers some of the insights he gained at the time.

Jiri VejvodaJiri Vejvoda "The Velvet Revolution came and out of the blue I became a special radio correspondent for all President Havel's official trips around the globe in 1990, which was a very interesting period. And also I was invited to interview him every Sunday for a series of programmes called 'Talks from Lany' (Hovory z Lan). So it was something quite extraordinary, because suddenly I was witnessing the making of the new Czech - and Czechoslovak - politics every week.

"To be frank with you, as far as journalism was concerned, it was not the peak of my profession, because I was a 'cultivated holder of the microphone', as it was not a controversial show. I simply proposed certain subjects and interesting items, and he had his show as president.

"But what was very interesting for me was something that step-by-step emerged from these interviews. Every time I had to edit the interview very carefully. I had about seventy minutes of material, and the result was a thirty-five or forty minute programme; so it was quite a responsibility to edit a president. Week by week I came to understand the hidden truth behind the words, behind the sentences, because if you edit a man every week, suddenly you know - 'Aha, now he is coughing because he is hesitating what to say; now he is making a long break because he doesn't know if he can unveil the whole truth, or if he is supposed to lie, or at least to make things a bit unclear in a Machiavellian way.

"So as far as journalism was concerned it was not that interesting, as I said, but on a psychological and human level it was the biggest lesson of my life, because I had a chance to go under the surface, to understand the man, the extraordinary man, and his reasons for talking, making breaks, coughing, not telling the whole truth and so on."


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