With the American election set for November, we turn back the clock to remember previous Polish excursions by US presidents… BY STUART DOWELL
Seven US presidents have made a total of thirteen visits to Poland. During all of those visits, the US head of state spent time in Warsaw with the exception of George Bush’s in-and-out trip to Jurata in June 2007 when he met Lech Kaczyński.
Dwight Eisenhower, who became president in 1953, came to Warsaw for a four-hour visit in 1945 when he was the commander in chief of Allied forces in Europe. He expressed his great shock at the utter destruction he saw around him as he toured the Old Town then jumped in his staff car and sped to his waiting plane.
Richard Nixon was the first serving US president to visit Poland when he arrived direct from Iran to a chilly Okęcie in 1972. The visit came amid a thaw in US-Soviet relations in the early 1970s. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Tricky Dicky’s Warsaw layover was that it hadn’t been agreed by local apparatchiks with their overseers in Moscow. Party boss Edward Gierek kept his head over the visit but others rolled and Moscow shored up their presence in Warsaw by sending in a KBG heavyweight to keep an eye on their errant Poles.
Back in those days, visiting kings and presidents were accommodated in specially arranged apartments in the north wing of Wilanów Palace. Charles de Gaulle was an earlier visitor. Great efforts were made by staff at the palace to find a bed big enough for the improbably tall French leader. Eventually, a super-sized antique was found in Kraków, hastily knocked into shape and sent to Warsaw. Nixon and his wife got their shuteye on the same bunk and it remains in the palace today.
Gerald Ford’s visit in July 1975 also took place in the warming waters of East-West détente. Just days before, Apollo and Soyuz spacecrafts had made a clunky embrace in orbit, and it was in a similar spirit of friendship that Ford came to Warsaw bearing gifts. On a previous trip to Washington, Ford had turned down Gierek’s request for a licence to produce US color televisions on the grounds that they didn’t want to give up American hi-tech wizardry. By now he had changed his mind, and any readers who rented a flat in Warsaw in the 1990s with an old Soviet-made colour TV will know what a big issue this was for Poland.
Jimmy Carter’s visit two and a half years later was notable in one respect. It was the first time a Western leader had appeared uncensored on live Polish television. The televised press conference took place at the recently opened Victoria Hotel, an oasis of style and elegance that showcased the socialist dolce vita. No earth-shattering statements were made and the talk focused on economic issues and future cooperation, but Carter left Warsaw as the last US president to visit People’s Poland.
George Bush senior visited Warsaw in July 1989 like an alpha dog sniffing around a new territory after chasing off the old pack, and when he came back in 1992 he quite literal bought a bone with him – bones in the form of the ashes of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, world-renowned classical pianist and prime minister of Poland in 1919, which Bush brought from Arlington and now rest in Warsaw’s St. John’s Cathedral.
When Bill Clinton first came to Poland in July 1994, even his easy American charm couldn’t brush aside Polish concerns about possible delays in joining NATO. On Slick Willie’s second visit, the mood was much different. The euphoria that gripped the eager crowds on Pl. Zamkowy couldn’t be quelled even by the Comeback Kid himself. It was only when the castle tower bell chimed that order was restored, upon which Bill looked up and saluted, uttering a votive thank-you to the helpful campanile.
George W. Bush’s three visits to Poland were all about smoothing Poland’s path into NATO and bunging cash to get rid of missile defence problems. He also managed to stop the clocks and bells at Wawel in Kraków and misunderstand Golec u Orkiestra’s line about turning wheat stubble into San Francisco.
Barak Obama has visited Warsaw three times, most recently for the NATO summit earlier this year. On his visit in 2014, Barry was famously filmed by a guest at the Marriot in the gym doing bicep curls. The filmmaker was saved from a hail of bullets as the secret service said that the president’s security was never in danger. As if to underline the point, Big B was snapped again in the same gym during the NATO summit, this time moving from a treadmill to a spinning cycle.
Several years ago, Donald Trump was invited to give a motivational talk to thousands of entrepreneurs at the National Stadium. His demand for a one-million-dollar fee might have been workable, but his Trump-sized additional requirements sunk the project. The lighting and sound for the event were to be rented from a Trump-nominated company, he wanted the costs of his private jet, a security detail covered by the organizers and a 40-million-dollar insurance policy was to be taken out with a US insurer. Maybe soon though, the people of Warsaw will finally be able to see The Donald cruising in the Beast on his way to the Presidential Palace…