In Washington, as Andrew Sullivan reminds us, a gaffe is when a politician inadvertently blurts out what they actually believe. It is always occasion for equal measures of embarrassment and entertainment. So, no, Barack Obama’s reference to a "Polish death camp" was not a gaffe. Worse than that, it was a blunder. Not of malice but of carelessness or ignorance but not much better for that.
To recap: Obama was awarding the Medal of Freedom (posthumously) to Jan Karski when he said this:
"Jan served as a courier for the Polish resistance during the darkest days of World War II. Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale and smuggled him in to the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself."
[Emphasis added.] The Poles, understandably, are horrified. David Frum and Michael Tomasky, neither of whom are likely to be invited to supper at Rush Limbaugh’s place, explain just why this is such a dreadful slip. Sure, the Polish Outrage Machine probably goes up to 11 but those, like Andrew Sullivan and TNR’s Alec MacGillis who suggest this is a mini-brouhaha of no importance whatsoever are only, at best, half-right.
Of course it was a speechwriters’ error. Of course Obama didn’t mean to suggest the camps were run by Poles. Of course he should have corrected the passage and referred to a Nazi death camp. But he didn’t. And so, yes, of course, he should (as Tomasky suggests) correct the mistake the next time he speaks in public.
Still, it’s a dreadful thing to have said. Doubtless some of the domestic reaction to Obama’s slip is motivated by domectic partisan animus but not all of it can be explained by that. There are many people in Washington – including many in senior and influential positions – who fail to appreciate the extent to which what is said in Washington is heard overseas. In Washington this Polish blunder is just a poorly – wrongly – phrased sentence; in Poland it’s an awful thing to say.
And since Obama was speaking at a ceremony honouring a Pole the offence is, in one sense, magnified. Getting this wrong somehow cheapens the whole exercise. It is, at best, slapdash and foolish. Put it this way: can you imagine Her Majesty the Queen making a comparable blunder in a comparable situation? I doubt it.
Moreover, while the Second World War is a quickly-receding memory in the United States things are different in europe and in eastern europe most of all. Not all Americans remember that or pause to consider their good fortune in being able to forget or ignore the layered complexities and agonies of european history.
Is it the worst thing ever said? No but you need only possess a modest dollop of empathy or imagination to see why and how it’s still a pretty dreadful error for the President of the United States to make.