Host family forgot Clinton's name, but says he was 'very nice'

By PETER S. GREEN  |  Oct. 25, 1992
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PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia -- When young Bill Clinton visited Czechoslovakia in 1970 -- on a trip destined to come under attack by the Bush campaign some 20 years later -- he stayed in Prague with the family of an Oxford schoolmate because he couldn't afford a hotel.

But it wasn't until a reporter rang the bell of the elegant Prague apartment of Jirina and Bedrich Kopold, once high-placed communists, that the elderly couple realized their young American guest is now the Democratic candidate for U.S. president.

'There was a very nice and pleasant young American man here in 1970, but I don't remember his name,' Jirina told United Press International.

Leaving her visitors at the kitchen table, she returned with a picture book of Oxford. 'He sent us this when he returned to England,' she said.

The inscription on the flyleaf read: 'Thank you for your wonderful hospitality and kindness to me. Bill Clinton, Oxford, 1970.'

'Oh, my,' she said in mild surprise.

Clinton was a schoolmate of the Kopolds' son Jan at Oxford. After a trip to the Soviet Union and on his way back to England, Clinton spent a week in Prague with the Kopolds.

At the time, Prague was still reeling from the 1968 Soviet-led invasion that quashed the Prague Spring reforms of Communist Party leader Alexander Dubcek.

But the Moscow-inspired 'normalization' that saw tens of thousands of Dubcek supporters fired from their jobs, exiled from the country or even imprisoned had yet to begin in earnest.

Visas for Czechoslovakia were still easy for foreigners to obtain, and thousands of young Westerners came to see what Prague had become.

'I sent dozens of my friends to visit Prague in 1970,' recalls Jana Frankova, a Czech who studied at Oxford when Clinton was there. 'People were interested in Prague because this was something that was happening right in the middle of Europe,' she said.

Jan Kopold was not home when Clinton visited. Like many Czechs studying abroad after the invasion, he was afraid to return home until he had completed his studies.

'My friend Bill Clinton will come to Prague. If he cannot find an affordable hotel, he may stay with you,' Jan wrote his parents from Turkey, where he died a few months later in a fall from an abandoned house near Smyrna.

'He has a wide knowledge of political systems and will come from Moscow,' Jan wrote, in a letter his parents proudly read aloud.

For six days Clinton stayed with the Kopolds, walking through the winding cobbled streeets of the old city, visiting museums and tourist attractions, and returning home every night for dinner with the family, they recalled.

Jirina and her husband Bedrich called him a 'very nice and friendly young man,' intensely interested in the Prague Spring reforms and how to help Czechoslovakia throw off the oppressive boot of the occupying Soviet Army.

The Kopolds' daughter Bedricha spent some time accompanying Clinton. And on his last day in Prague, Jirina's mother Marie Svermova took young Bill for a stroll.

'I went with Bill to the Strahov library and the Loretta (monastery),' Mrs. Svermova wrote in her diary.

Marie Svermova must have been an interesting companion for young Clinton: from 1945 to 1951 she was a member of the politburo of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. In the show trials of the 1950s, she was purged from the party and spent six years in Communist prisons.

In fact, the Kopolds rank among the grand old families of Czechoslovak communism.

Jirina's father was a former editor-in-chief of the Communist Party daily Rude Pravo, and a top member of the Moscow-based Czechoslovak Communist Party leadership during World War II. He died in the Tatra mountains, fighting alongside the Soviets to free Czechoslovakia from Nazi rule.

But the family was Jewish and had spent time abroad. In 1951, when the Stalinist purges of the Czechoslovak party leadership began, Marie Svermova and Bedrich Kopold were expelled from the party and sent to prison.

Marie Svermova served six years in a Communist jail, and became one of Dubcek's most prominent supporters in the Prague Spring.

Later, she was one of the first to sign the Charter 77 human rights document, along with such dissidents as Vaclav Havel, who in 1989 led the 'velvet revolution' that overthrew Czechoslovakia's communist rulers.

Even in 1970, Clinton seemed to be considering a career in politics: 'We often discussed how to help Czechoslovakia out of its terrible situation,' Bedrich Kopold recalled.

'One day we walked past the American Embassy and I said to Bill, 'Some day you will come back as ambassador or cultural attache,' and I laughed. Bill looked at me very seriously and said he well might,' Kopold continued.

Sitting in their living room, with the works of Marx and Lenin on the bookshelf in front of them, the Kopolds say they never recognized Clinton on television. They said unless they had been asked about their nearly forgotten American guest, they never would have known he had stayed in their home.

Looking at the thank-you notes Clinton and his mother Virginia had written the Kopolds, Jirina said: 'I hope Bill Clinton wins. He was such a fine young man.'

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