Lech Walesa vs. George W. Bush

In his blog post about Poles liking Ronald Reagan more than we do, Tyler Cowen writes:

The irony is that Lech Walesa, author of these words, remains far more popular in the United States than in his native Poland. Taxi drivers told us that the Poles “hated” Walesa, even though we regard him as a hero for world freedom.

His taxi driver was partially right–Poles felt a much magnified version of what most educated people feel about George W. Bush, in terms of speech, education, and intelligence. Unlike Bush, Walesa came by it honestly. It’s ironic that only in the fall of communism did the working class actually take power anywhere in Central or Eastern Europe.

Walesa’s speech combined the accent of Bill Clinton with the grammatical, um, innovations of Bush, though maybe not as unintelligible as your usual MTV rapper. He tried to quote a famous Polish saying that translates to “I do not want to, but I must,” in regard to his Presidential ambitions in 95. Unfortunately, he used the wrong verb form, so it came out sounding like “I ain’t wanna, but I gots to.” In fact, when living in Poland at the time, I bought a t-shirt that would read in English: “I ain’t wanna, but I gots to GO TO SCHOOL.”

The Poles can be weirdly snobbish, especially about language. My theory is that since national identity in that part of the world is closely tied to language, there is an expectation that linguistic ability is part of legitimacy in the ruling class. They’re thrilled when you learn a little bit of Polish; but once you get partially fluent they seem to think you a bit dim, since you’re not well-spoken.

The degree of dislike of Walesa is a function of geography. Political attitudes in Poland map fairly well to which country ruled that part in the Partition of Poland. The Austro-Hungarian south leans right, the Russian east goes left, and the Prussian northwest is the swing state, so to speak. However, the area around Krakow is considered a bit toffee-nosed, so they, while liking his party (or the tens of “sofa parties”–parties in which the members could all fit on a sofa–that took its place after it collapsed), were a bit embarrassed by Walesa.

I like the guy, though I’ve never met him–I suspect however that it’s a fairly American rags-to-riches story, for which we have a greater cultural appreciation.