White House Downplays Absence of Key Player in Poland Meeting

(Warsaw, Poland) When President Obama meets with the Polish president and democracy advocates in Warsaw Saturday, noticeably absent will be a legendary figure in Polish politics and in the fall of communism.

Poland's former president and Solidarity founder Lech Walesa was scheduled to brief Mr. Obama and Poland's President, Bronislaw Komorowski, on his recent visit to Tunisia. However, Walesa backed out, reportedly citing a scheduling conflict. News reports say that he will be at biblical festival in Italy and will not be able to make it.

The day before the meeting was to begin, White House aides sought to downplay Walesa's absence. "[I]f he can't be there because he has a previous commitment, that's certainly understandable," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said Friday.

But it was clear from a pre-trip conference call with reporters on May 20th that the administration was eager to hear from Walesa. His was the only name they cited, "There is a Polish delegation that recently traveled in the region, traveled to Tunisia," Rhodes said then. "And Lech Walesa, for instance, is one of the members of that delegation."

Poland is being viewed as a leader in political transformation and an example to other countries that are finding themselves in the middle of transition. Aiding fledgling democracies is a central theme of Mr. Obama's European trip, including in Warsaw, the last stop on his seven-day tour.

White House aides quickly pointed out that President Komorowski actually invited Walesa, not President Obama.

Still, they admit Walesa is a powerful force,"[H]e is a symbol among -- a leading symbol among many of the transition by the Polish people."