After a decade of persistent mass protests and industrial strikes; a dramatic visit to his homeland by the first Polish pope, John Paul II; and because of the effect of Western sanctions on the communist government, Solidarity had by 1989 broken the back of the very Polish security state that Walesa had briefly and secretly served. In November of 1989, I had the privilege of arranging his triumphant U.S. visit and witnessing his stirring speech to a joint session of Congress. In D.C. and Chicago, to the pique of the Bush I White House, Walesa spent most of his time in the company of members of the U.S. labor movement, which had seen in him the hope of organized labor: a worker committed to democracy. A blue-collar hero.
This is why it is painful to witness his fall, to see him stand naked before the court of harsh judgment, diminished as much by his unconvincing denials as by his actual, fundamentally modest, betrayals.
Still, Walesa’s struggle is a less a personal tragedy than an important cultural event: a reminder that Poland has been blessed by nearly three decades of what looked like good news. Now the country’s image is slowly regressing to the mean. A heroic people are revealing themselves as an ordinary, flawed nation, in thrall to material pursuits, fearful of a wave of immigrants, anxious about their place in the economic firmament.
In truth, Poland’s fall from grace came early. Walesa’s presidency saw him alienate many of his best advisors and replace them with his card-playing, incompetent sidekicks. The economic difficulties inherent in the transition from a statist economy contributed to a loss of faith in the worker-leader, shattering the solidarity (lower-case) of the unified democratic opposition, and allowing the representatives of the old communist order to come back into power in 1993.
It was this expulsion from Eden by Poland’s voters in the aftermath of radical economic changes that led Adam Michnik, the Polish journalist and intellectual turned reluctant media mogul, to argue that “Gray is Beautiful,” that moral ambiguity and moral compromise are part of the give and take of democracy. At the time, his article was an apologia for the comeback of the ex-communists, a result that few could foresee in 1989 when Poland’s democratic forces swept to power in democratic elections. Still Michnik was fundamentally right. The country had unwittingly entered the gray world, with an ex-communist president, Aleksandr Kwasniewski, upholding democratic values and guiding Poland into NATO.
Michnik’s celebration of gray applies, as well, to the current Walesa scandal as to contemporary Polish politics. It makes clear that the glare of a free and often skeptical, if not cynical, media, and the emergence of unfiltered truth that is a characteristic of democracy, is often unkind to politicians, who, like all of us, are sinners.