I went to great - and futile - lengths to meet with Polish President Lech Walesa
Letter from Warsaw
In Search of Lech, Kielbasa and a bottle of beer
WARSAW - I'm sitting in the big, white palace waiting to meet the president. OK, that's a stretch.
I'm actually waiting to meet Beata Majkowska, who works for the president. You know the guy, Lech Walesa, one of the great men of our time. And you know his story:
Poor shipyard electrician from Gdnask organizes Solidarity movement that eventually topples the Communist government.
He wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
He's elected president.
He's Poland's Abraham Lincoln.
Normally, I avoid government leaders, as I do eggplant. They usually speak from a script rather than the heart. Walesa is different, I figured. With his background, he must be a regular guy. Certainly, he'd love to chat with an American correspondent from a small-town paper. Maybe over kielbasa and beer. You know, bud to bud.
So, five weeks before I left for Eastern Europe, I spoke to Jaroslaw Kurek, press attaché at the Polish embassy in Washington.
"Generally, it's not very easy," he said. "I know the president likes American journalists, so send me a letter. I'll see what I can do."
I did, and Kurek passed it on to a fellow named Miroslaw Kowalawski, a member of Walesa's press staff in Warsaw. I waited a week and called.
"I can tell you that it's not very likely," he said in very good English. "One month is not enough time. He has thousands of requests."
We reporters are a notoriously stubborn lot, so I firmly asked what I needed to do to see the president.
"I'll see what I can do," he said. "Call me in a week."
When I did, Kowalawski was busy. Instead, I talked to his assistant, Ms. Majkowska. "I don't know what happens," she said in very bad English. "Usually, Mr. Kowalawski talks to Mr. (Lelzak) Spalinska (Walesa's spokesman) and then Mr. Spalinska talks to the president. If the president says yes, then it's OK."
"What should I do?" I asked.
"Please," she said. "Call me next week. I will tell you."
I did, and for the first time heard encouraging news.
"I will call you next week about fixing your appointment," Majkowska said.
Next week came and went. No call. I called her. No answer.
Off to Poland
With plenty of other stories to report, I left for Europe. Paris. Frankfurt. Berlin. Finally, Warsaw. I phoned the palace first thing.
"Ms. Majkowska, it's me. All the way from Alabama."
"Really, you are here?" she said.
She was genuinely surprised.
Then, "I'm sorry. Your interview with the president is impossible. He's on holiday."
"That's too bad," I said. "How about Mr. Spalinska?"
"Sorry, no, he's busy."
"He's not here."
"How about you?"
"OK, you come tomorrow at 10."
If I wasn't going to see the president at least I would meet someone who worked for the president. That's something. Anyway, I had done some sleuthing during my short stay in Poland and had some questions to ask Majkowska. For instance, the 52-year-old president is up for re- election in November, but he's running sixth in the polls, far behind favored candidate Aleksander Kwazniewski. Word is, Walesa was a great crusader, but is not such a hot president.
"His time is over," said Zbigniew Ros, an insurance company executive. "Now he should step aside before his reputation is ruined."
Sounds like Ulysses Grant — great general but lousy in the White House.
Digging further, I heard the president is having trouble with his 22- year-old son, Przemysla, recently arrested for driving drunk, and that Walesa may have shaved off his trademark mutton-chop mustache while on vacation.
I'm ready for Majkowska. I clear security and wait in the west wing of the recently renovated palace. It's some kind of place — U-shaped, more than 100 windows, probably three times the size of the White House. It's a long way from Gdansk and the shipyard.
Beata Majkowska is younger than I expected; 24, she says, and in her first year on the job. It's a hot day. The palace is not air conditioned. She wears an off-white, low-cut cotton shift, three inches above her knees. Apparently, dress-down day has made it to Poland. And it's not even Friday.
In her office, she apologizes for her poor English and for failing to secure the interview with Walesa.
Frankly, she says, "the president doesn’t like interviews. Journalists, yes. Interviews no. He prefers short press conference."
"So, where is the president?" I ask.
"At lake near Warsaw. In the summer, he spends two days in Warsaw and five days in the country."
Tough job, I think, and then ask about Walesa's declining popularity.
Majkowska, who clearly likes her job, would have none of it.
"l was with president during election trip," she says. "The people Iove him. He's much better person than Aleksander Kwazniewski. I think he will win election."
Shifting tacks, I ask about the mustache. Majkowska giggles.
"He doesn't shave it all off," she says. "It's small. It looks like Hitler. Mrs. Walesa won't like it."
Will the voters?
I ask about Mrs. Walesa. She stays in Gdansk with the eight kids, says Majkowska.
She hands me a batch of family portraits. Four boys, four girls, two grandkids. No smiles. A serious lot, these Walesas.
"Which one is in trouble?" I ask.
Surprised at the question, Majkowska points to a fair-haired lad with a mischievous smirk.
"It's bad," she says of Przemysla Walesa. "He is married, but he's at home with Mrs. Walesa now.
Sixth in the polls with a wayward son.
The troubles confronting the president may surprise some. But not Walesa. In his 1987 autobiography, A Way of Hope, he writes: "l am aware that I have already lived the best moments of my life. I shall have to face bigger problems, harder tasks; perhaps the worst is yet to come."
It's time to go. At the door, Majkowsku says. "I'm sorry you don't meet the president."
Never mind, I think. I'm headed to the Czech Republic in a few weeks. Its president, Vaclav Havel, is a noted playwright.
Maybe he'll agree to an interview.
You know, writer to writer.
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Editor's Note: A version of this article was published on Oct. 15, 1995 in The Anniston [Ala.] Star
Postscript: A little more than three years later, in January 1999, I was working in the newsroom of The [Toledo] Blade when I heard a pair of editors talking.
"Hey, guess who’s going to be in town tomorrow," said one.
"Who?," asked the other.
"I’ll be damned," I thought. "He’s come to me."
I mentioned my connection and was given the assignment to cover his visit. [He was in town as the guest of the Junior League of Toledo.] I made a special request for a private interview, which was arranged.
The following day I joined the former president in the back seat of a limo during a short drive to his first stop, a visit with UAW employees at a Toledo Jeep plant. Yes, former president. As predicted when I was in Poland, he lost the election two months later to Aleksander Kwazniewski, effectively ending his political career. Since then, he’s been cashing in on the lecture circuit.
He wore a bland gray suit and, judging by his waistline and sinking chin, had been eating well. His trademark mutton-chop mustache was indeed gone, replaced by a more traditional stash. At 55, it was mostly gray.
My first question: "How is Beata Majkowska?"
Clearly, he was taken aback.
"How do you know her?" he asked, not unkindly.
"I visited your office in 1995 to interview you. But you were on vacation. So, I interviewed Beata instead."
"I’m sorry you came all that way."
"That’s OK. I enjoyed my visit anyway."
It was then on to more serious topics, such as: What was it like going from an electrician to leader of a solidarity movement to president of your country?
His response was surprisingly frank.
"It was much harder to be president. It was the hardest time in my life."
I asked him what he did once he lost and got another surprising answer.
"I tried to return to my old job at the shipyard," he said. "Well, the managers told me I needed to be a manager. The workers told me on one hand they wanted me back but on the other hand it would be a distraction. Of course, they were right: Just imagine me working at the shipyard with my security guards with me everywhere I went."
And on it went. I asked direct questions. He gave straight answers. Walesa was a formidable presence. And his savvy as a leader and speaker was evident at each of his many stops over two days.
He demonstrated a keen and varied intellect on world affairs during his keynote address at the Junior League’s After Hours banquet and fundraiser. Union leaders and workers at Jeep gave him a loud ovation and sought photo ops and autographs.
He addressed a student assembly at Riverside Elementary School.
"I’m a politician, and politicians are usually boring people," he began.
In fact, he was humorous, candid and informative.
His best stop was his last, at St. Adalbert’s Catholic Church in the city’s Polish Village. Many of those in attendance were seniors, some of whom has escaped Poland during its Communist rule. In an emotional tribute, they thanked Walesa for leading the effort for a democratic Poland.
The former president, clearly moved, quickly flipped the script.
"I am sure many of you paid a much higher price than myself," he said. "I should be thanking you."
And with that fitting conclusion, my quest to track down Lech Walesa was complete.
Although we openly discussed many topics, there was one thing I did not admit: He not being at the presidential palace in Warsaw that hot summer day in 1995 made for a much better story.
Unknowingly, Beata Majkowska – wherever she is - saw to that.