WARSAW (Reuters) - When Lech Walesa, the man whose Solidarity movement helped bring down the Iron Curtain, found himself sitting across from Barack Obama at a banquet in the Polish capital on Tuesday evening, he offered the younger man a piece of advice.
“I said that I wished the United States would lead,” Walesa told Polish television about the encounter, which he said was not so much an upbraiding of the U.S. president as an “interesting” encounter.
Obama was at the banquet at Warsaw’s Royal Castle to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Poland’s first partially-free elections, which ended the Communist Party’s domination and ushered in democratic rule.
Walesa, 70, did not go into details about what he had said to Obama, but he had previously said the Obama White House was not being sufficiently muscular in response to Russian interventions in Ukraine and other threats to world peace.
In a view that chimes with the criticism of Obama from many in the U.S. Republican Party, Walesa told Poland’s TVN24 broadcaster last week that the United States should be a global leader yet “the superpower has not been up to the job.”
A White House official, asked by reporters about Obama’s encounter over dinner, said someone of the stature of Walesa - like Obama himself a Nobel Peace Prize winner - deserved a respectful hearing.
“I didn’t speak at length with the president about it, but they definitely exchanged words at the dinner,” Ben Rhodes deputy national security advisor, told reporters on Air Force One as Obama flew from Warsaw to his next stop in Brussels.
“Look, the President did say to us that Lech Walesa is the man who did as much as anybody to help bring about freedom and democracy in eastern Europe,” Rhodes said.
“And the fact that he has occasionally criticized certain policies of the president in no way diminishes the respect we have for his extraordinary achievements.”
In a speech in Warsaw’s Castle Square on Wednesday, Obama showed his admiration for former shipyard worker Walesa was undimmed, thanking him for his outstanding leadership.
He described Walesa as “the man who jumped that shipyard wall to lead a strike that became a movement, the prisoner turned president who transformed this nation.”
A Reuters reporter who was briefly allowed into the hall at the start of the banquet on Tuesday said Obama was seated between Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.
Walesa had been seated across the table from Obama, though the table was so wide and the room so loud it was unlikely they could have carried on a long conversation over dinner. It was possible one of them later walked around the table to talk.
Walesa was an electrician in the Baltic port of Gdansk when he emerged as leader of Solidarity. He was elected Polish president in 1990. Now without any official posts, he has developed a reputation for his blunt, homespun pronouncements.
Writing by Karolina Slowikowska and Christian Lowe; Editing by Robin Pomeroy