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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Havel Plays Tour Guide as Clinton Savors Prague

PRAGUE -- President Bill Clinton was shown the sights of the history-steeped Czech capital Tuesday night in a personal tour conducted by President Vaclav Havel.


Arriving from the NATO summit Tuesday afternoon, Clinton was led by the playwright-president around Prague Castle, onto the 15th-century Charles Bridge over the Vltava River, and out for an evening of dining and jazz in one of Central Europe's trendiest towns.


The one sour note of the evening occurred during Clinton's visit to the Reduta nightclub, when what turned out to be a firecracker went off in the street outside. The presidential limousine quickly pulled up onto the sidewalk in front of the club's door, and a tense-faced Clinton strode briskly to the car as Secret Service agents held a bulletproof coat in front of him.


Within minutes, Clinton was back in the safety of the Atrium Hotel, a structure as new as the Charles Bridge is old.


During his chats with Clinton, the gentlemanly Havel betrayed none of his government's unhappiness with the United States over NATO's insistence on slowing the new Eastern democracies' membership drive. And he had praised Clinton in a radio address to Prague residents last Sunday as a man with "a remarkable ability to listen."


A highlight of the trip was to be the walk on the bridge, a twin-tower marvel begun in 1357, finished in the next century and adorned with 30 oversized statues of the saints, that is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe. To the east lay Prague's Old Town. Atop the soaring bluffs to the west, Hradcany Castle, a walled fortress that includes the presidential palace and the Gothic splendor of the Cathedral of St. Vitus.


The castle, illuminated in icy white light, towered above the city and the dark, cold waters of the Vlata. It seemed a scene from a medieval fairy tale as the two leaders strolled along the bridge.


But this was the 20th century, and this moment was not one of reflection for two contemplative heads of state.


White House aides had been planning the event for months as a made-for-television spectacle of the U.S. president meeting a hero of the struggle that freed the captive nations of the former Soviet bloc.


As a result, the two presidents were not quite alone: There were Czech police, the Secret Service and White House advance staffers. There were television newsmen Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel and their camera crews. Instead of sharing deep thoughts, the two leaders were giving interviews and struggling to be heard over the din of aides and crew members shouting "Get out of the shot!" to pedestrians stepping into the line of video fire.


American culture was not far away: a Dixieland band was serenading "Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby."


The bridge has become a testament to the free market capitalism that Clinton has come to Prague, in part, to celebrate. The ancient bridge has become a hive of street vendors hawking ceramics, knickknacks, inexpensive art, and even Western tapes and compact discs.


Some city residents complain the kiosk capitalists have made it impossible to enjoy the bridge except in early morning, and the government has tried, unsuccessfully, to bring them under control.


After their walk, Clinton and Havel headed to a pub called the "Golden Tiger" for Pilsner beer and breaded veal chops. There, along with the beer and the huge slabs of meat, Clinton squeezed in a conversation with Jirina Kopold and her husband Bedrich. He had met them 24 years ago, when their son Jan was among his Oxford classmates. Jirina's mother, Marie Svernoa, a founder of the Czech Communist Party, had guided Clinton around Prague during his student days.


Next, it was off to the Reduta. Before his exit, according to those allowed inside, Clinton was handed the inevitable saxophone and played "Summertime" and "My Funny Valentine." He reportedly got a standing ovation.


The club is on Narodni Street, where the so-called Velvet Revolution -- the almost bloodless overthrow of the Communist regime -- started on Nov. 1, 1989, with Havel playing a leading role.


Earlier in the day, when Clinton visited Prague Castle as part of the official welcoming ceremonies, he was duly appreciative of its grandeur.


Briefing reporters in the Hapsburg Room, he said that hen he came to Prague as a student,: "No one invited me here."


After a 45-minute chat with Clinton, Havel said his government's response was "very favorable" to NATO's Partnership for Peace program aimed at bringing new nations into the alliance.


Even so, it was clear the Czech wanted equal treatment. At the briefing, each man stood behind a lectern. But Havel, who at 167 centimeters (5 foot 6) is a head shorter than Clinton, stood on a small step.