The mustachioed Lech Walesa, who led a trade union movement that challenged Poland’s communist government, probably hasn’t registered in the average American’s consciousness since the Polish regime fell. All of a sudden, though, the kind of American who hangs out at presidential campaign rallies is hearing a lot more about him. In late July, Walesa welcomed Mitt Romney to Gdansk, where he said encouraging things that were not only interpreted as an endorsement of Romney’s candidacy, but also represented the most successful part of an otherwise disastrous foreign trip. For months afterwards, Romney talked about how Walesa had told him that America needed to take charge.
“I was with Lech Walesa a number of weeks ago, a great hero in Poland,” Romney told a crowd in Wayne, Pa. “I came in to see him, he said you must be tired, you came from America. You sit, I talk, you listen. And so I sat and—and he began to speak and he said this time and again, where's American leadership? The world needs American leadership; you're the only superpower on the planet. Where is your leadership?”
Thus Walesa supplied Romney with real live backing for the Cold War mentality that Barack Obama suggested the 1980s might want returned. Which makes sense: Walesa remains stuck in the bipolar world. Bart Szewczyk, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and term member with the Council on Foreign Relations, says the 1983 Nobel laureate probably placed Romney in the same bucket as the American president he knew best.
"His experience with American leaders, or his best experience, is based on his view of Ronald Reagan,” Szewczyk says. “Ronald Reagan is adored in Poland as the president that helped bring down communism, the Soviet Union, and so forth. And so I think he might've thought that it was the 1980s again, and Romney was saying things that resonated with him back during those times."
Other factors explain why Walesa, a former labor activist, lent his support to a man whom American unions have pledged to defeat. (When the AFL-CIO tipped off Walesa’s old political party that Romney wasn’t their guy, Solidarity distanced itself from Walesa’s remarks). For instance, the role of a host in Polish society means Walesa would hardly speak ill of someone he saw as a guest. Additionally, Barack Obama had declined to meet with Walesa earlier this year; the president had also pissed off many Poles with his conciliatory stance towards Russia. And the deeply Catholic Walesa is characteristically aligned with the religious Romney: In an interview with Vice magazine, he said he identifies as right-wing because the right believes in God and private property.
All the same, Walesa makes a less than ideal surrogate. For one thing, he has quite a different understanding of international leadership than Romney. In the same Vice interview, Walesa opined that America had lost its moral standing when it unilaterally invaded Iraq, adding that a true American leader would have mobilized the community of nations to go in together. “America has to organize us so that they’re not the only ones involved,” he said, through a translator.
The philosophical difference between the old Polish leader and the new American right were on particularly stark display at a rally outside Chicago last Friday organized by the Tea Party ringleader FreedomWorks. Walesa was introduced with more reverence than any of the other speakers, but delivered the least red meat. While repeating his call for American leadership, he also criticized America as a country where you need to have $100 million to run for president (he may not have known that it's actually much more). He outlined a formula for a nation's strength as a democracy based in part on how many people had the economic wherewithal to actually enjoy their political freedoms—not a definition that Romney might support. And in a line that flopped with the libertarian crowd, Walesa appealed for more regulation, not less.
“Consider traffic regulations,” he said. “Don't the traffic regulations restrict our freedom? They restrict the speed at which we drive, we've got stop signs, a forced direction in which to drive. That just shows, we can't have total freedom when we come to drive...The trouble is, for the time being, we do not have traffic regulations for other spheres of our lives as well.”
Romney may have used Walesa’s words to lend himself a modicum of credibility in foreign affairs (just like Rush Limbaugh twisted Walesa's remarks two years ago to say Obama was leading America towards socialism). If he'd spent some more time with Walesa back in Gdansk, he might've learned what the iconic freedom fighter really meant by them.