White House Barred Lech Walesa From Medal Of Freedom Ceremony

It turns out that there’s a bit of a back story to the U.S./Polish diplomatic  kerfuffle that erupted after Wednesday’s Medal of Freedom ceremony:

The Poles wanted Lech Walesa to receive the medal on Karski’s behalf, but the White House nixed the choice. Last year, during Mr. Obama’s visit to Poland, the hero of Solidarity refused to attend a large gathering to meet the younger leader. Mr. Walesa felt entitled to a tete-a-tete. Administration officials told Polish journalists that Mr. Walesa’s presence was too “political” for this week’s occasion. Poles read something else into it: Mr. Obama holds grudges. The counter-snub was the talk of Poland last week.

Former Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld, a Polish Jew, stood in at the White House celebration. The Walesa episode was fading into memory when President Obama made his opening remarks. Karski was “smuggled into . . . a Polish death camp to see for himself,” he read off the teleprompter, that Jews were being murdered. On second reference, Mr. Obama noted it was a Nazi camp. Too late. The damage was done.

Rory Cooper comments:

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.

To be fair, Walesa was being a bit prickly himself when he declined to go to the meeting with Obama last year, but this does put the whole “death camps” issue into a little more context as it seems that there was already some simmering tension between the two nations over what was supposed to be a celebration of a man who, along with Walesa and Pope John Paul II, is one of the heroes of 20th Century Polish history.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Not at all surprising. Obama is a Chicago politician. Chicago politics is like the Sicilian mafia. Not only do they hold grudges they aim to settle them on their terms.

  2. Rob in CT says:


  3. Interestingly, this also feeds into the story about Polish historical revisionism with regard to their history of anti-semetism: Walesa was one of the major dectractors of Jan Gross’s book on the Kielce pogrom, and denounced him publicly as “a mediocre writer … a Jew who tries to make money”.

  4. al-Ameda says:

    I’m beginning to think that “Chicago politics” originated in Poland:

    Kosciuszko Foundation president Alex Storozynski gave ABC’s Jake Tapper a statement calling for a better apology and referencing a peculiar right-wing obsession: “Obama was seen reading this phrase off a teleprompter. The president must acknowledge his mistake and apologize for it.”

  5. @al-Ameda:

    The point about the teleprompter means that the phrase “Polish death camps” was in the President’s prepared text, not just a mis-statement on his part.

  6. OldSouth says:

    Obama, in presenting the Medal of Freedom, is acting in his role as Head of State, representing the entire United States on a happy occasion honoring deserving people. This is not the time or place to settle scores, or score points, or solicit votes, or grab the spotlight. The recipients of the awards are to be in the spotlight, with our Head of State serving in his ceremonial role to present the honors, and then stand aside.

    Obama has zero grasp of the idea that not every occasion he speaks in the public is a campaign appearance. What a disgrace, what an utterly incompetent political hack now occupies the White House.

  7. al-Ameda says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I’m not as convinced as you are, Alex Storozynski also contributes to the National Review, so I think this is just another small part of the conservative talking point world.

  8. Jeremy R says:

    This reminds me of the stupid “Churchill bust” controversy that was pushed by rightwing british tabloids and became fodder for the U.S. Right. Here you you have the Polish Right, Murdoch’s WSJ and the National Review again trying to push one of these idiotic snub stories.

  9. J-Dub says:

    I’m just surprised that it only takes one Pole to receive a medal when it takes five to screw in a lightbulb.

  10. Jenos Idanian says:

    More evidence that Obama tends to be a classless jerk.

    For a stark contrast, look at President Bush’s return to the White House this week. He showed true class, dignity, and good humor. He didn’t even allude to how he’s been Obama’s favorite whipping boy for about four years, blamed for everything short of the heartbreak of psoriasis.

  11. al-Ameda says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    More evidence that Obama tends to be a classless jerk.

    So, if he didn’t apologize for the mistake, you’d REALLY be mad, right?