You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How Do You Say Brouhaha In Polish?

I have little patience for overreaction to political gaffes or misstatements, but usually this lack of patience takes the form of dismay at the blatant cynicism involved in such overreactions. In the case of the upset over President Obama's reference last night to "Polish death camps," I'm left with more mystification than dismay, because the uproar of sensible people like David Frum and Michael Tomasky is genuine. They truly seem to think Obama committed a grave offense against the Polish people when, in awarding the Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, he said this:

"Jan served as a courier for the Polish resistance during the darkest days of World War II. Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale and smuggled him in to the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself."

The Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, blasted Obama's wording, which is perhaps not so surprising -- politicians abroad are no less likely than ours here to seize an opportunity for umbrage that plays well at home. I'm more surprised, though, by the reactions of Frum, the Last of the Mohican moderate Republican, who called the remark the "single most offensive thing [Obama] could possibly have said on this occasion," and Tomasky, a staunch Obama supporter who called Obama's wording "just ghastly":

How in the world could that happen? Some callow kid in the speechwriting office didn't know the difference? His or her boss also didn't know? And what of Obama? I will assume that he does know better. But he said the words.
Assuming he knew it was wrong when it was coming out of his mouth, why didn't he just stop and say: "You know, Mr. Karski, it says here 'Polish death camp,' so that's what I said, but I want to correct that. We all know that these were German camps." That's all. Easy peasy. He really should have just taken charge of the moment there and shown some honesty and candor.

Wow. "Just ghastly?" Like Andrew Sullivan, I truly don't get this one. It is abundantly clear that what was meant in that line, but so poorly phrased, was a reference to the death camps that were in Poland. Yes, Obama could have stopped and made that distinction, correcting the infelicitous text that had been given him, but you know what, he didn't. A president giving ceremonial remarks in the midst of a dozen other things (campaign ramping-up, massacres in a country he's not done enough for, etc) did not have the presence of mind to stop and correct lousy wording. And for this we fly into high dudgeon? Sorry, this is ridiculous. I'm willing to grant some umbrage in instances where the misstatement betrays something about the speaker's thinking -- say, Obama's unfortunate 2008 comment about working-class whites who "cling to guns and religion." So it would be a problem if we thought the president truly believed that the death camps were Polish in the sense of Polish-run. But there is absolutely zero reason to believe that.

Some of the pushback against today's umbrage has taken the form of people pointing out that, yes, some Poles, like many Ukrainians, shared some of the responsibility for what happened at camps run by German Nazis. But that, too, is going too far, because that suggests that Obama intended to imply some Polish responsibility in the remark. He did not. It was lousy wording. He should've corrected it. He didn't. Move on.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis