The Washington Post

After Obama’s ‘Polish death camp’ mistake, calls for a stronger mea culpa

In politics, sometimes “oops” isn’t good enough.

The Obama White House learned that the hard way Wednesday, when its clarification of President Obama’s misstatement about “Polish death camps” was met with widespread exasperation among Poles.

Obama made the remark a day earlier, erroneously describing the Nazi concentration camps inside Poland as “Polish” while posthumously awarding the Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter who died in 2000.

Administration aides issued a statement Tuesday evening saying Obama misspoke. But that did not sit well with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who called on the White House to issue a stronger correction.

The president’s inaccurate words “touched all Poles,” Tusk said. “We always react in the same way when ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions lead to such a distortion of history, so painful for us here in Poland, in a country which suffered like no other in Europe during World War II. . . . This is something that we cannot ignore.”

The mistake was a diplomatic fumble and an election-year embarrassment for the White House. Though it was unlikely to cause lasting damage for Obama, the slip-up was a reminder that verbal gaffes can cause problems for sitting presidents as well as their rivals.

On the same day that Obama erred, rival Mitt Romney’s campaign released an iPhone application that misspelled the country’s name as “Amercia.” That mistake led to a round of social-media mocking for a candidate eager to appeal to younger voters, and the Romney campaign quickly corrected the iPhone software.

For his part, Obama took a pass on directly commenting on his misstatement during two public appearances Wednesday, including a Jewish American Heritage Month reception at the White House.

But press secretary Jay Carney fielded several questions during his daily briefing, emphasizing repeatedly that Obama regretted the mistake but that “the misstatement should not detract from the clear intention of honoring Mr. Karski.”

Obama’s political adversaries pounced, chiding the administration for failing to carefully vet a speech that was presumably prepared by the president’s aides. Obama awarded a dozen medals Tuesday and made brief comments about each recipient, including Madeleine Albright and Bob Dylan.

Conservative strategist and writer David Frum, whose grandfather was born in Poland, lambasted Obama on Twitter and in his Daily Beast column, calling the remarks “a terrible insult.” Frum added that whichever White House aide was responsible for the speech “ought to have known enough and cared enough about his mission to have avoided this ignorant error.”

Other Polish Americans also criticized the White House, even if they did not blame Obama directly. “The people who wrote his speech were not aware of the nuances,” said Jeanette Friedman, director of communications at the North American Council of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Obama “should not be held accountable for this. There’s no way he could know these fine points. But should someone have vetted it? Yes.”

Friedman’s colleague Jerzy Warman, a council board member who met Karski several times, said that had Karski been alive to hear Obama’s remarks, “he would have made a face as if he ate something very sour.”

“But look, let’s put it in its proper place,” Warman added. “It was a historical mistake, but there was no malicious intent behind it. I wouldn’t make it into an earthquake.”

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.


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