The Shaming of Lech Walesa
There wasn't a cloud in the sky on the day I met Lech Walesa in Gdansk earlier this year. A gentle breeze stirred. I extended my hand to the slayer of communism. He reciprocated humbly, I thought, without eye contact. Stocky and gray-haired, Walesa greeted me in a traditional Polish way:
"Quickly, quickly, let's get this over with," he said. "I don't have much time."
I had been warned. Taxi drivers, retirees, priests, doctors, an owner of a Christian radio station—most of them former Solidarity members—all got red in the face when I told them I was going to interview Lech Walesa. "He squandered his opportunity!" most of them said, as if they'd had a chance to rehearse before I crossed paths with them in various Polish cities. The ensuing litanies accused Walesa of making deals with the communists, not to mention megalomania, greed, pride, verbal gaffes, and stupidity.
But, before I met with Walesa, I was too Americanized to take my unscientific survey of Polish public opinion at face value. The one exception was the Walesaisms, Poland's equivalent to Bushisms. Walesa has always been known in Poland for his entertaining malapropisms and other miscues—such as when he exclaimed "I am pro, and even con!" or when he talked about "positive and negative pluses." As to the more serious indictments, I attributed them to jealousy and a complaining spirit, Poland's lingering inheritance from communism. Is it Walesa's fault that he banked a hefty sum for his Nobel prize? Is it his fault that he's received 30 (and counting) honorary doctorates from institutions ranging from Harvard through St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, to Pontificia Universidad Catolica Madre Y Maestra in the Dominican Republic? Surely he deserved them all for freeing Poland from communism.
Another, more powerful, reason why I didn't want to see Walesa's darker side had to do with my family's history. On June 28, 1956, my grandfather built his own glass ceiling by joining the first big anti-communist demonstration ...