New York Times European correspondent Dan Bilefsky bizarrely relayed the contents of a secret police file from the former Communist state of Czechoslovakia to boost his argument that Vaclav Klaus, the new president of the European Union, is a dangerously arrogant proponent of the free market. Bilefksy's Tuesday story from Prague, "A Fiery Czech Is Poised to Be the Face of Europe," read more like a cautionary left-wing editorial than a news story.
In the 1980s, a Communist secret police agent infiltrated clandestine economics seminars hosted by Vaclav Klaus, a fiery future leader of the Czech Republic, who had come under suspicion for extolling free market virtues. Rather than reporting on Marxist heresy, the agent was most struck by Mr. Klaus's now famous arrogance.
"His behavior and attitudes reveal that he feels like a rejected genius," the agent noted in his report, which has since been made public. "He shows that whoever does not agree with his views is stupid and incompetent."
Decades later, Mr. Klaus, the 67-year-old president of the Czech Republic -- an iconoclast with a perfectly clipped mustache -- continues to provoke strong reactions. He has blamed what he calls the misguided fight against global warming for contributing to the international financial crisis, branded Al Gore an "apostle of arrogance" for his role in that fight, and accused the European Union of acting like a Communist state.
Now the Czech Republic is about to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union and there is palpable fear that Mr. Klaus will embarrass the world's biggest trading bloc and complicate its efforts to address the economic crisis and expand its powers. His role in the Czech Republic is largely ceremonial, but he remains a powerful force here, has devotees throughout Europe and delights in basking in the spotlight.
"Oh God, Vaclav Klaus will come next," read a recent headline in the Austrian daily Die Presse, in an article anticipating the havoc he could wreak in a union of 470 million people already divided over its future direction....But Mr. Klaus's sheer will and inflammatory talk -- the eminent British historian Timothy Garton Ash once called him "one of the rudest men I have ever met" -- are likely to have some impact.
Bilefksy expounded on Klaus's economic background as a devotee of legendary free-market economist Milton Friedman, then picked up Klaus's story in the early '90s, after the fall of Soviet Communism, and his run-ins with the future president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel:
In 1991, Mr. Klaus founded a new center-right party, the Civic Democratic Party, which won elections in June 1992, making him prime minister. His radical privatization strategy -- including a voucher scheme later emulated in Russia, where it led to the amassing of vast wealth by a few oligarchs -- was marred by allegations of corruption, with Mr. Havel accusing Mr. Klaus of "gangster capitalism."
Ladislav Jakl, now Mr. Klaus's pony-tailed private secretary, said that the main difference between the leaders was that Mr. Havel sought to give people goodness whereas Mr. Klaus was determined to bestow freedom.
"Give people goodness"? What does that even mean? The phrase "determined to bestow freedom" makes it sound more like an onerous burden rather than the blessing of liberty. Which it is, from a certain leftist European mindset.
Near the end, Bilefsky wrangled a dubious compliment from a former advisor, suggesting Klaus's followers were a bunch of beer-swilling Czech-necks.
Bohumil Dolezal, a leading commentator who once advised Mr. Klaus, said Mr. Klaus's greatest talent was his ability to appeal to average Czechs, who imbibed his easy populism along with their beers.
Times reporters have previously used the rotating EU presidency to dump on European leaders guilty of being pro-Bush, pro-Iraq war, or overly fond of free markets, as demonstrated by Frank Bruni's hostile coverage of once-and-future Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi when it was Italy's turn at the top in 2003.
Also compare the hostile reception granted to the freedom-loving Klaus, who will wield little actual power during his six-month stint as EU president, to the Times's tolerance of the left-wing dictator Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Here's Times reporter Juan Forero from 2005, impressively praising two left-wing tyrants in a single sentence:
Now, it seems, the torch is being passed, and it is Mr. Chávez who is emerging as this generation's Castro -- a charismatic figure and self-styled revolutionary who bearhugs his counterparts on state visits, inspires populist left-wing movements and draws out fervent well-wishers from Havana to Buenos Aires.