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The Invitation

By Tara A. Nayak

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl will have the platform to himself today as he addresses graduates, their parents and returning alumni.

But if things had turned out differently, today's Commencement audience might have been graced by the additional presence of one of Kohl's new counterparts to the east.

According to overseer Frances FitzGerald '62, Kohl was chosen early in the fall by the overseers committee responsible for the selection of a Commencement speaker.

But the subsequent disintegration of Communist regimes in eastern Europe presented an opportunity for the Board to add a new and unprecedented twist to the graduation ceremony.

So the overseers extended an offer to Czech President and playwrite Vaclav Havel to speak alongside Kohl, in what would have been a symbolic representation of both Eastern and Western Europe, FitzGerald says.

"In the middle of this, along came the revolutions in Eastern Europe," she says. "So Havel became somebody who would be an obvious person to want."

In addition, she recalls, there was some hope that the Board would be able to lure Walesa to the Commencement ceremony. The leader of the Polish solidarity movement accepted an invitation to speak two years ago, but was unable to attend because of political unrest in Poland. Instead, his speech was read in absentia by Professor of Comparative Literature Carlos Fuentes.

But as things turned out, Walesa was never formally asked to this year's ceremony. And Havel declined to attend, since Czechoslovakia's first free parliamentary elections since the Prague Spring crackdown in 1968 are scheduled for tomorrow.

"The idea was to try and commemorate this year by getting these people," says FitzGerald. "But they're pretty busy where they are."

According to Overseer Peter H. Wood '64, the normally secretive and smooth process of choosing the Commencement speaker was somewhat rockier this year. Not all the Board members, Wood says, supported the choice of Kohl, whom Wood called a "right-wing European."

"There was some sense that Havel would mitigate the embarrassment of having Kohl by himself," Wood says.

Wood also notes that it is unusual for Harvard to invite a world leader in an election year, a move that might be perceived as a partisan statement.

"But often we invite dictators who don't run for reelection," Wood quips.

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