Romney and Walesa

Not being an expert on Polish history and politics, I don’t exactly know why Nobel Prize laureate Lech Valesa sorta kinda endorsed Mitt Romney to become president of the United States. But nor, either, do a lot of the U.S. conservatives who are assuming Walesa has validated Romney as a heroic global freedom fighter battling socialism (or, say, labor unions).

I do know Walesa’s career has been stormy and controversial during and after he served as president of Poland in the 1990s. Here’s what Philip Sherwell and Bruce Konviser of the conservative British paper The Telegraph had to say about him in 2000, when he attempted a comeback campaign for the presidency:

What Mr Walesa’s loyal aides at the offices of the Lech Walesa Institute – a think-tank he established after losing office – dare not tell him as they bring him his papers and execute his barked orders is that he will do well to win five per cent of the vote.

Like the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr Walesa is much more popular abroad than at home. It is hard to find a Pole who will criticise his role in defeating communism, and just as hard to find one who has a word of praise for his five-year presidency – a period that was characterised by his intransigence, belligerence and paralysing disputes with parliament.

A Western diplomat in Warsaw said: “Walesa is in the odd position of being an unpopular hero. He is a hero for taking on and defeating the old regime, but his presidency left him a deeply unpopular politician. People think he should retire from public life with grace now.”

Walesa has perhaps best been known in recent years as a fiery Catholic social conservative and opponent of legalized abortion (including in vitro fertilization in his definition of abortion) and of same-sex marriage. That certainly makes his support for Romney unsurprising. But any effort to share Walesa’s acclaim as the great anti-communist union activist of the 1970s and 1980s with Mitt Romney is entirely anachronistic.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.