By: Lauren Saccone
President Barack Obama is known as a masterful public speaker. Even his detractors will admit that he has a way with words. Perhaps because of his talent as an orator, his gaffes in that area are more noticeable than they would be in a less talented spokesman. For President Obama is learning that sometimes a simple mistake in a speech can open up a world of trouble.
On Tuesday, the President was presenting honorees with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Among those honored was the late Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter in World War II. In his speech, Obama said that Karski, “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 into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself. Jan took that information to President Franklin Roosevelt, giving one of the first accounts of the Holocaust and imploring the world to take action.”
The Polish government was appalled that President Obama had used the phrase "Polish death camps" when referring to Nazi concentration camps in their country. Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, angrily tweeted that the White House was guilty of “ignorance and incompetence.” Poles believe that the correct term is in fact "Nazi death camps," emphasizing the group behind the atrocities.
The day after the outcry began, the White House issued a formal apology for the error. Well aware of the strong ties between the Polish and American governments, officials were no doubt eager to smooth over the whole unpleasant situation.
“The President misspoke,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor in an official statement. “He was referring to Nazi death camps in Poland. We regret this misstatement, which should not detract from the clear intention to honor Mr. Karski and those brave citizens who stood on the side of human dignity in the face of tyranny.”
The Polish government refused to accept the apology. Officials said that the President was underestimating how deeply he had offended the Polish people. They wanted a more sincere apology, and they wanted it from the president directly.
“When someone says 'Polish death camps,' it is as if there were no Nazis, no German responsibility, as if there were no Hitler"’ Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said in a statement. “We cannot accept such words even if they are spoken by the leader of a friendly power.”
The White House has flatly refused to extend further apologies for the faux pas.
“We regret the misstatement, but that is what it was,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney when asked by reporters. The White House pointed out that the President has traveled to the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial and paid homage to the Poles who fought against Nazis in World War II.
This will certainly not go down in history as President Obama’s finest oratorical moment, and was without a doubt a regrettable mistake. But while an error was made, it should be kept in perspective.
“Look, let’s put it in its proper place,” said Jerzy Warman, a member of the North American Council of the History of Polish Jews, in an interview with The Washington Post. “It was a historical mistake, but there was no malicious intent behind it. I wouldn’t make it into an earthquake.”
[Pic of Polish PM Donald Tusk via Flickr - Eastbook.eu]