Eliška Hašková Coolidge: “I never look back”

At age 8 she fled communism and went west, where she built a brilliant career – 27 years in service to the US government under five presidents. Eliška Hašková Coolidge, a member of the Czech national elite, is an inspirational conversationalist.

In 1948 the communists took your family’s property, and a year later you, your mother, and your three-year-old brother fled to Germany. You were only eight. Most of us can’t imagine such a situation. What happened?
I remember every detail. I was walking in Šumava at night with my mother, who had a bag in one hand and held my hand with the other, while my brother slept on her back. A woman took us across the border, with her husband watching the border lights to see when it was safe to cross. A few times we had to hide from soldiers. When we finally reached Germany we knocked on a door, but they wouldn’t let us in. At the next house a dog chased us off, and finally at the third they let us sleep in a barn and gave us hard-boiled eggs. After that I couldn’t even look at eggs for a long time! (laughs).

How long did it take to recover psychologically from such a trauma?
Not long. I look at things positively, I’d rather look to the future than back. Also, children adjust quickly. After three months we left Germany for France, where I went to school. I had to learn French, and after the first year I was second in my class. Then I left for America, where my father was. Before nationalization he was a private banker in Czechoslovakia. My parents were divorced, so we split up. I found a new life in America, and my mom and brother settled in England.

You built a remarkable career in America. You worked for five American presidents, from Kennedy to Carter. How were you, an immigrant, able to succeed in competing with natives?
My dad always said that we immigrants had to try to excel at everything. He explained that if I didn’t have the best manners and education I wouldn’t stand out. Being in the right place at the right time was also key. I applied for work at the State Department, but the man who interviewed me recommended me as a White House assistant. They accepted me in August 1963. Unfortunately, Kennedy was shot three months later. I’ll never forget that day. I went with a colleague to a stationer’s to buy a diary instead of going to lunch, and we heard about the assassination over the radio. We were dumbfounded. All of America was paralyzed.

Which president you worked for was the best boss?
Of the Democrats – it wasn’t Kennedy, surprisingly, it was Lyndon Johnson. True, he was tough and capricious, one day he’d nearly fire you, and the next he’d ask you to stay. But he was a boss who took wonderful care of everyone who worked for him. I think the laws Kennedy proposed would never have been enacted without Johnson. Johnson knew his way around the Congress, he knew how to deal with people. I liked his honest, open approach. During his presidency he placed great emphasis on transparency in government. He started in life dirt poor, but money didn’t change him, he stayed the same inside. Repub-lican Richard Nixon also made an impression on me. He did a lot for America’s international ties. I joined the Republican party under his administration.

So you don’t regard him negatively because of Watergate as most Americans do?
I think history will eventually rate Nixon among the greatest international statesmen. You know, public perceptions are usually fickle. For example, Bill Clinton, our most charismatic president, let the Amer-icans down in my opinion by lying. I don’t care about his private life, but it bothers me that he didn’t have the courage to say that what he did was his and his wife’s business, not anyone else’s. Instead, he lied to defend himself.

You’ve dealt with protocol your whole life. You teach etiquette and social behavior to diplomats at the Diplomatic Academy at the Czech foreign affairs ministry. How are Czechs at this in general? Can you tell Czechs and Frenchmen apart on the street?
Absolutely. Not only by appearance, but also by behavior. A lack of refinement is still a problem, even in the highest circles. I wish politicians would act in a cultivated way, that when they disagree they would avoid vulgarity and rudeness. Appearance is another matter. There are still people who don’t think looking good is important, but that’s a big mistake. Every headhunter will tell you that in the first three minutes you create an image that affects the overall impression. It’s not a question of money. You can wear a thousand-dollar outfit and still look like a mafioso. Proper clothes, details, bearing, good manners – it all must create a harmonic whole.

How do you rate Czech women?
I admire them greatly. Even with little money they dress beautifully and are good at everything. Unfortunately, they don’t know what clothes are appropriate, or that sex appeal isn’t about short skirts and exposed bellies, it’s about natural movement and behavior, and elegance. Some Czech women deflect attention from their intellects through what they wear, giving in to sexist allusions, sometimes even provoking them. But this will certainly correct itself in time, it’s a vestige of the times when people weren’t brought up this way.

A life in numbers
1941 born on 26 March in Prague
1949 emigrated to Germany and then to France
1950 went to join her father in the US
1963-1980 graduated from Georgetown University, majoring in Foreign Service, and started working at the White House, as PR director for the office of the President
1981-1990 reported to the State Department for contacts with Congress, later becoming deputy of protocol and deputy US ambassador to the OAS
1998-2004 lives in the Czech Republic, where she founded Coolidge Consulting Services, an active member of the American Chamber of Commerce and vice president of Gastro Žofín
2003 named “Leading Czech Woman in the World” by the Senate, appointed vice chair of the administrative council of Plaváček, a foundation that helps gifted children in orphanages.

Last year the Senate named you a “Leading Czech Woman in the World”. What does this demonstration of recognition mean to you?
It moved me deeply. I’m glad I’ve accomplished something as a Czech. But I think people who spent their whole lives caged up here deserve it more, as they have the right to look back with bitterness. So I admire everyone who found the strength to live here, to bring up children and inculcate them with good values, regardless of the communist regime.

What was your greatest success in life?
My daughter Alexandra, who’s now 25 and lives in New York. I’m very proud of her. She knows five languages including Czech, she works for Morgan Stanley, where she’s responsible for institutional marketing. And she and some girlfriends set up a foundation that helps build schools in Afghanistan.

Some time ago your family castle in Kundratice was returned through restitution. Do you have any plans for it?
My dream is to build an education center there for wellness, social behavior, and life-style. There are horses there, too, and it’s a very romantic Šumava location, a little paradise. I’d like to organize weekend or one-week courses. The problem is that I have to find the money for it, and it’ll take time. I’ll probably need a clone, I have lots of other work, and I don’t even have an assistant! (laughs)

You are vice president of Gastro Žofín, which organizes major social events. How does your managerial role suit you?
It’s challenging here in Prague. I try to assert a managerial style, which relies on our recognizing the work of even someone who seems the least important. This involves being aware that success depends on each individual, and that implies individual responsibility. But that’s a stumbling block in this country. When you reprimand someone for doing something wrong, instead of learning from it, he blames someone else. Margaret Thatcher hit the nail on the head in her speech at Prague Castle on the 10th anniversary of democracy, saying that we think we have democracy and freedom, but we won’t be really free until we start recognize the individual responsibility and the laws. She was absolutely right. In America it’s normal to have a task and guarantee that it’ll be done. It sounds logical, but I think it will take some time before Czechs start thinking this way.

Where do you see yourself in five years?
I hope to realize my dream in Kundratice and continue contributing to better communication between the Czech Republic and the US and among people in general.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
A believer, optimistic, honest.

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