Walesa to arrive in U.S. more of a hero than in his own country

March 19, 1991|By Kay Withers | Kay Withers,Special to The Sun

WARSAW, Poland -- Polish President Lech Walesa arrives in the United States today more of a hero to Americans than he is to Poles.

Americans still hail him as leader of the Solidarity labor movement's 10-year battle to free Poland of Communist rule and build a pluralistic and capitalist society.

The last time Mr. Walesa visited the United States, in November 1989, he was acclaimed by a joint session of Congress as a symbol of East Bloc freedom.

Last November he was elected president of Poland after a bitter and sometimes dirty campaign tinged with anti-Semitism. Since then his popularity has declined sharply.

The latest poll by the state-run television network's polling organization gave him a public approval rating of 52 percent, down 11 percent since he took office in December.

His first three months of rule have been dogged by staff blunders in which top advisers publicly contradicted the president, by allegations of nepotism and drunken shenanigans in his family, by gaffes like his suggestion that prices be lowered "50 or even 100 percent," and by opposition in both Parliament and government bodies.

"Unfortunately, the first few months of Lech Walesa's presidency offer too many indications that his office is functioning poorly," wrote Poland's top-selling political weekly, the leftist Polityka, which, like the nation's leading daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, opposes him.

"The old Lech Walesa, the union man, is gone," the weekly Polityka continued. "Instead we have Lech Walesa, the president of the Polish Republic. All the president's people, including himself, should come to terms with this as soon as possible."

Perhaps in the United States, which has always regarded him warmly, Mr. Walesa will be able to exercise his presidential charisma in what amounts to a mission of mercy for his country.

In a week of meetings with presidents and Polish-Americans, Mr. Walesa will attempt to draw sorely needed investment to Poland to support the post-Communist government's dramatic -- and unpleasant -- program of economic reform.

He is to begin his official visit tomorrow with a breakfast meeting at the White House with President Bush.

Later, he will see former President Ronald Reagan, as well as businessmen and leaders of the Polish community in Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

It is hoped in Warsaw that the United States might further reduce Poland's debt, beyond the 50 percent already agreed to last week by an international group.

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