Former Polish president Lech Walesa is humble and flat-out funny at sold-out Chico State appearance
Despite having only the training of a shipyard electrician, Lech Walesa pulled his country from under the thumb of communism and won a Nobel Peace Prize and worldwide acclaim. He’s traveled the world, met with just about every major head of state, and calls Mikhail Gorbechev a friend.
But Friday night, speaking to a sold-out, appreciative audience at Laxson Auditorium, Walesa was just plain funny.
He seemed genuinely surprised at the rousing standing ovation he received from the crowd when he walked onto the stage with university President Manuel Esteban and joked to Esteban that he might duck off stage before Esteban could introduce him.
“I think I will leave now,” Walesa said with a smile through his interpreter. “I wasn’t expecting such a fuss … with me just a short fatty man here to speak to you all.”
He also said he was surprised that so many people came to hear him speak, since “I never made time to meet with politicians. They, very often, tend to be very boring people.”
The crowd laughed with him.
Walesa’s speech was full of witty one-liners, but it had serious moments. Walesa, who was the first president democratically elected in Poland, is on a two-month speaking tour in the United States that he planned in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He’s here, he said, to “be with the American people, to encourage them.”
“This is a very important time in the history of the world,” he said. “Everyone around the globe must decide if he is for life, or if he is for death.”
While he said he “fully approves” of the Allied-led war on terrorism, he cautioned against wartime brutality and revenge.
“This should be a war in which not one shot is fired,” he said. “The only shots heard should be of champagne corks flying into the air.”
Walesa, who rose to an unlikely power by leading the hugely popular Solidarity Labor Movement against the Soviet-backed communist regime, won his Nobel Prize in 1983 for his efforts in defeating the oppressive government. He was overwhelmingly elected to the presidency in 1990. While he called former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbechev a friend, he joked that he won the prize largely because Gorbechev’s government failed.
“The world was so glad that the communists failed that it gave me the Nobel Peace Prize for helping them along,” he said. “It was very nice of them.”
He poked fun at last year’s presidential election fiasco, joking that he had enough speeches in his Palm Pilot about the election to last all night.
“This country, what a country,” he said. “You elected two presidents for one term, although perhaps in a country as big as yours, you may need two.”
The crowed roared with laughter. He also poked fun at his own country’s often-turbulent political life.
“If there are two Polish people in a room, they will establish three political parties,” he said, laughing.
He said that the globalization of the world’s economy is, on the whole, a good thing for the world, but he encouraged the global community to band together also in matters of security. He said that global warfare could be avoided if the United Nations became a sort of global parliament, the U.N. Security Council became a global government to mitigate disputes between nations, and NATO was transformed into a new Ministry of Global Defense.
“The world must come together to confront and defeat terrorism," he said. "But there are other threats that affect the whole world, too. We must be together as a world if we want that final victory."