The governing assumption for most of the chattering class is that the president is supremely intelligent and highly educated. He went to Harvard Law School, don’t you know? So usually when he makes jaw-dropping errors of fact on economics or history, excuses are made and allowances are given.
But yesterday his knowledge deficit caused an international flap.
He was supposed to be honoring the late Jan Karski, a Polish-born U.S. citizen who was part of the Polish resistance during World War II and brought back proof of death camps -- the Nazi death camps in occupied Poland. Obama announced: “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.” Thunk.
The entire country of Poland was soon in an uproar, with the Polish prime minister publicly expressing his outrage.
David Frum explains: “Many of the Nazi death camps were located inside the territory that is now Poland, yes. But it was not Poland in 1942. Poland then was a conquered and enslaved territory. If we are to identify the killers by nationality — rather than by their Nazi ideology as would be most appropriate — then the camps were German, German, German: ordered into being by Germans, designed by Germans, fulfilling a German plan of murder.” The reaction in Poland was therefore understandable given the painful history: Well more than 5 million Poles died in WW II.
With Obama’s mistake, the intent of the award backfired. As Frum writes: “The medal to Karski was to be part of the process of laying painful memories to rest. It was intended too to strengthen the U.S.-Polish relations that the Obama administration has frayed in pursuit of its ‘reset’ with Russia. Instead, this administration bungled everything: past, present, and future.”
The administration, if you recall, gave the Poles a kick in their collective pants early in Obama’s term by pulling out missile defense sites (to earn the good graces of Vladimir Putin, which didn’t — shocker! — work out). This time, the White House issued a paper apology after a day of furious reaction in Poland. Another lesson in “it doesn’t pay to have the U.S. as your ally.”
But getting back to Obama, no one who knows much about the Holocaust refers to the camps as “Polish camps.” They are “concentration camps” or “death camps” or “the extermination camps” or “the Nazi camps” or even “The Camps.”So whoever wrote that line had little familiarity with his material. The same can be said for the president.
President Gerald Ford wiped out in the 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter by saying Poland wasn’t “occupied.” He meant, he later said, that the hope of a free and independent Poland still beat in the hearts of its countrymen. He was right, but a few decades early. Moreover, his misstep was in the form of a compliment. Obama’s gaffe, by contrast, seems to stem from gross ignorance. In the process he slurred an ally and the memory of millions of its dead.
So the next time the president “misspeaks,” consider: What does he really know, and is what he knows flat-out wrong?