Polish human-rights icon Lech Walesa effectively endorsed Mitt Romney on Monday, giving a boost to the presumptive GOP nominee during a foreign trip that has been marred by stumbles.
Poland is the final stop on Romney’s six-day overseas trip, which was designed to give him international status and boost his foreign-policy credentials, but was overshadowed by a series of missteps from the candidate.
But the blessing from Walesa, the highly respected Noble Peace Prize winner and former president of Poland, helps end Romney’s trip on a high note and buoys him ahead of his major foreign-policy address on Tuesday.
The remarks by the former leader of the anti-communist trade union Solidarity — Solidarnosc in Polish — played right into the hands of Romney, who has sought to portray himself as a stronger ally than President Obama when it comes to defending central and Eastern Europe against Russia.
Democrats were left scrambling to downplay the significance of Walesa’s approval.
Polish-American Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) hosted a conference call Monday afternoon contrasting Romney’s “top-down policies with the bottom-up views of Poland’s Solidarity movement.” And the current leadership of the movement in Poland, which is allied with U.S. unions and Democrats, quickly distanced itself from Walesa’s remarks.
“I wish to inform that NSZZ ‘Solidarnosc’ is in no way involved in the organization of this meeting [with Walesa] nor had the initiative to invite Mitt Romney to Poland,” Andrzej Adamczyk, the head of the union’s international department, said in a statement. “I wish to express, on behalf of the president of NSZZ ‘Solidarnosc’ Piotr Duda, our solidarity with American workers and trade unions. NSZZ ‘Solidarnosc’ will always support the AFL-CIO in their struggle for the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.”
Walesa’s remarks follow a series of tiffs with Obama. Walesa skipped a meeting of national leaders with Obama organized by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski during the president’s trip to Poland in May 2011.
“I won’t meet him,” Walesa told reporters at the time. “It doesn’t suit me.”
One year later, the White House refused to let Walesa receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously honored to Jan Karski, a member of the Polish underground during World War II, deeming Walesa “too political.” While awarding the medal, Obama compounded Polish anger by referring to a “Polish death camp” instead of a Nazi death camp in Poland.
Romney spoke with Walesa after a meeting with Prime Minister Donald Tusk in the port city of Gdansk, a center of opposition to communism where Solidarity was formed in 1980. He is scheduled to visit Warsaw on Tuesday and meet with Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and Komorowski before laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and visiting several World War II memorials.
Romney will give his speech at the University of Warsaw Library.
His trip got off to an inauspicious start after his apparent criticism of the London Olympic preparations was ripped by the British press and Tory Prime Minister David Cameron. Romney also raised eyebrows with comments at his next stop, in Israel.
At a speech on Sunday, Romney said the disputed city of Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel. And on Monday, he told a fundraiser for top Jewish donors that culture and the “hand of providence” were responsible for the “stark difference in economic vitality” between Israelis and Palestinians, comments that the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, labeled “racist.”
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki downplayed Romney’s trip, calling it “a bunch of fundraisers and photo-ops.”
Psaki, speaking to reporters on Air Force One as Obama traveled to New York City for a campaign fundraiser, pointed out the controversy Romney caused during his time abroad.
“He’s now been to two countries and he’s had two countries where he has made a series of fumbles. He’s been fumbling the foreign-policy football from country to country. And there’s a threshold question that he has to answer for the American people, and that’s whether he’s prepared to be commander in chief,” she said. “This raises some questions about his preparedness.”
— Posted at 1:08 p.m. and updated at 8:29 p.m.