At the end of 2006, Jüri Raidla’s law firm celebrated Christmas with an evening reception at the Hobuveski venue. About 100 people, mostly men, were seated around a dozen tables. I was sitting at one of the tables when someone knocked on my shoulder. It was Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who had just been elected president a few months ago, and had held an enthusiastic speech. I stood up. 

He thanked me for my 6 November 2006 article President Ilves’s Tiger Leap published in Õhtuleht, in which I defended his wife and him. “Thank you, Janek,” he said. I didn’t get what he was talking about straight away and both I as well as my companions were clearly confused. But I did understand then and there that Ilves is a warm-hearted person. A gentleman.

In the article, I wrote this: “The president puts his hands in his pockets when meeting the Queen. The first lady’s dresses are ugly. It is true that the pockets of a good suit should be sewn shut anyway, because anything put in the pocket would ruin the fabric. And Evelin Ilves’s choice of costumes may not be as sophisticated as the Queen’s, but Elizabeth II has ruled since 1952 and not just for a couple of weeks. Also, the best tailors in the world make sure that the royal dynasty stands out; living traditions have unbelievable power, buying power included.”

Ilves didn’t fall short of Meri and Rüütel

In a decade, Ilves learnt everything that matters. And then some. He also created new traditions – the Rose Garden Reception on 20 August, the 24 February receptions outside Tallinn, etc. It is my turn to say to Toomas Hendrik Ilves: Thank you, Toomas Hendrik, 12 points! Also to you as a person.

Too generous? Not really. I’m not at all sure if Lennart Meri was a better president than Ilves. Ilves also did not fall short of Arnold Rüütel, who simply represented the more down-to-earth citizens with different political preferences.

Arrogant? No. Not a single sane person could, would or desire to live up to the expectations of all 1.3 million Estonians. If he pleases half of these, then he is extremely gifted. And Ilves managed that.

You should never judge a person and his work on the basis of one sentence, opinion or speech or judgement of belief (yet often enough, haven’t we demanded that a minister step down because of one clumsy-accurate-honest sentence or something similar). However, politicians are often judged like that, which is why they do the same to people and their opinion leaders who are not participating in active politics. Ilves has been criticized for several of his words and actions. And the criticism has surely been justified.

Any intelligent person may get irritated when given a contextual view point that does not coincide with his/her beliefs. When one cuts a finger, then the blood comes with a sharp pain. Ilves showed his pain more in the beginning of his presidency than during the second half of his term. As far as people are concerned, it was the other way round.

No-one needs to like froth

Understanding and mercy must always be mutual, because as the Estonian language lyrics of Hank Williams Jr.’s I’m for Love go “the president does not listen to people, and people do not like froth,” then the people do not listen to the president, and the president does not like froth. Or as the English would put it: “One good turn deserves another”.


Ilves’s gentility surpasses his cockiness. His last extra-long LP interview revealed that Estonia is dear to Ilves, but is overly critical (of him and everything else). I would rather say that Toomas Hendrik grew into the role of the president within a decade. Estonia did not get tired of him, and vice versa. In ten years, Ilves became one of the symbols on the Estonian coat of arms.

I also disagree with the people who say that Ilves’s activity in interior politics was weak. I remember a wonderful summertime dinner at Alatskivi castle three years ago (my summer cottage is 5 kilometres off from there) when the presidential couple visited the coastal villages of Lake Peipus.

When I, my daughter Jette Marie (who is now 11 and still talks about shaking hands with the president) and 30 local people had a long dinner with the president, he spoke a lot about the need of giving local life a kick start. He was attentive and sincere. I have discovered that top politicians are much more pleasant once I actually get to know them than they appear in media. Ilves is certainly an impressive debater in private conversation. Now, he’ll have much more opportunities to practice that.

But what to wish for Kersti Kaljulaid who is sworn in today? The most important thing is to tolerate criticism – coming from friends as well as foes. Because the society does not criticise the president as a president, but the president as a leader. The role of the critic (the jester or clown) is to evaluate and criticize the president during his/her entire term. This keeps the social balance. Never-ending uncompromising praise and admiration before the last day of office would be so North-Korea.

The President, the public leader of leaders, must always be perfect, brilliant, and insanely talented in every aspect – a task that cannot be achieved by even the most capable of persons. However, when looking at the complete picture, critics can give you endless love during the five-year term and rate your performance with the maximum 12 points. Kersti, I hope you will not fall short of Toomas Hendrik. Please succeed.