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October 8th, 2008 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

Klaus-trophobia

WW’s Czechered past prompts an international incident.

     
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Praguematist: Václav Klaus.

When I left my job as a reporter in Prague six years ago, I never thought my work would make waves again in the tiny Czech Republic. But fallout from a story last week on our website now has me covering the Czech coverage of my WW coverage of President Václav Klaus’ visit to Portland.

Confused? Pour a Pilsner and read on.

Klaus is a second-term Czech president who also may be the world’s highest-elected global-warming denier. Portland was his first stop on a six-day U.S. tour, sponsored by the local Cascade Policy Institute and other libertarian groups, where Klaus questioned climate-change science and warned that environmentalism is undermining liberty.

That may sound prehistoric to Portlanders, and it’s embarrassing to many Czechs as well. But in his home country, few question him publicly. Although he occupies a largely ceremonial post, Klaus looms large as a former prime minister who still grips the levers of power. “What’s the difference between Klaus and God?” goes one Czech joke. “God never thinks he’s Klaus.”

I also recalled Klaus being a notoriously difficult interview to land, at least in his own country. So I was surprised when just two other reporters, from KOIN TV and KBOO radio, showed up for his Sept. 30 news conference at the Portland Hilton (see Murmurs, WW, Oct. 1, 2008). The Oregonian also ran a story Oct. 1 about Klaus visiting the BridgePort brewpub.

I was set to ask Klaus some tough questions since I never got the chance in Prague. First, was it really the best time to be talking free-market orthodoxy amid a financial meltdown? Actually, Klaus said, the problem was over-regulation, not de-regulation.

Remembering the adoring crowds that used to follow Klaus’ predecessor in office, Václav Havel, I raised my hand for a second question and asked Klaus whether he was concerned the apparent lack of local interest in his visit might reflect a diminished standing for his country.

Klaus paused before purring coolly: “I’m sure my predecessor would be in favor of cap and trade,” a system of regulating carbon emissions that’s been proposed for Oregon.

After the news conference, Jody Clarke, one of Klaus’ hosts from the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, approached me. “I can’t believe you asked such an arrogant question,” she said. “And you are an asshole.”

My story on wweek.com set off a tiny tempest in the Czech Republic, where the country’s largest daily and the national wire service picked it up. They lingered on the fact that a U.S. reporter had criticized the president, quoting sections on Klaus’ famous arrogance and his rivalry with Havel. I was getting calls for TV interviews, but they never happened because of the nine-hour time lag. Clarke wrote a letter to WW this week that’s one part apology, nine parts criticism of my reporting. About the only person I haven’t heard from is Klaus. But in his online diary of his Oregon sojourn, written in Czech, he had some choice words about Portland.

“I woke up early and went for a short morning walk,” he wrote Oct. 1. “But there is nothing going on in quiet Portland. There is almost nothing to see.”

He also visited Multnomah Falls. “People at the waterfall completely ignored the importance of an appropriate and smart dress code,” Klaus wrote. “On my last trip abroad I went to Tokyo, Japan. There couldn’t be a bigger difference in the quality of, and attention paid to, clothing.”


FACT: Pitkin lived in Prague from 1996 to 2002 and spent much of that time working at The Prague Post, an English-language weekly.
 
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