Lech Walesa was once a trade-union activist. He was often arrested for speaking his mind against Communist oppression behind the Iron Curtain in Poland and for defying the Soviet Union. He was an electrician who, with no higher education, led one of the most profound freedom movements of the 20th century — Solidarity. He became president of Poland and swept in reforms, pushing the Soviet Union out of his homeland and moving the country toward a free-market economy and individual liberty. And President Obama doesn’t want him to set foot in the White House.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Polish officials requested that Walesa accept the Medal of Freedom on behalf of Jan Karski, a member of the Polish Underground during World War II who was being honored posthumously this week. The request makes sense. Walesa and Karski shared a burning desire to rid Poland of tyrannical subjugation. But President Obama said no.
Administration officials told the Journal that Walesa is too “political.” A man who was arrested by Soviet officials for dissenting against the government for being “political” is being shunned by the United States of America for the same reason 30 years later.
Meanwhile, one of the recipients of the Medal was Dolores Huerta, the honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. So socialist politics are acceptable, but not the politics of a man who stood up and fought socialism.
This revelation follows an eruption of outrage in Poland after President Obama referred in his remarks at the Medal of Freedom ceremony to “Polish death camps,” a phrase that Poles have battled since the end of the Cold War. The phrase suggests that Poles were complicit in Nazi concentration camps, which of course is not the case. In fact, Poles were exterminated in the camps.
The White House’s flippant response to the uproar caused the Polish president and prime minister to demand more thoughtful and personal reactions. But White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that the president has no plans to reach out to his Polish counterparts and has shrugged off the outrage in Poland.
Few observers are suggesting that President Obama’s written remarks noting “Polish death camps” were intentionally malicious. The comment was more likely a result of historical ignorance and careless inattention. This is the same ignorance and carelessness that would cause a president to turn away Lech Walesa and label him as “too political.”
Ironically, Lech Walesa shares a distinction with President Obama: They both won Nobel Peace Prizes. Walesa earned his in 1983 after years of fighting for peace and freedom, and being monitored, harassed, and jailed for it. President Obama received his award in 2009. Some may think that this would be enough of a bond for President Obama to set aside political differences for the greater good. But instead, President Obama treated Walesa the same way he treated the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who was ushered out the White House kitchen past piles of garbage in 2010.
The likelihood is that President Obama didn’t want Walesa in the White House because Walesa has made critical remarks toward the president’s policies and in 2010 warned that the United States was slipping toward socialism. But rather than taking the mature and diplomatic path and respecting Walesa’s right to have a differing perspective, Obama chose to shun his lifetime of achievements.
Congratulating Walesa on his Nobel Prize in 1983, President Ronald Reagan said: “For too long, the Polish government has tried to make Lech Walesa a non-person and destroy the free trade-union movement that he helped to create in Poland. But no government can destroy the hopes that burn in the hearts of a people. The people of Poland have shown in their support of Solidarity, just as they showed in their support of His Holiness Pope John Paul II during his visit to Poland, that the government of that nation cannot make Lech Walesa a non-person, and they can’t turn his ideas into non-ideas.”
The White House should not treat President Walesa as a non-person, and they cannot turn his ideas into non-ideas.
Rory Cooper is director of communications at the Heritage Foundation.
This article first appeared on National Review Online on June 1st, 2012.