While he isn’t a one-man gaffe machine like Mitt Romney, President Obama has been known to let the wrong word slip — and his mistakes have the potential to spark major international incidents. While handing out the Presidential Medal of Freedom today, Obama was concentrating so hard on resisting the urge to sing “It Ain’t Me Babe” to recipient Bob Dylan that he accidentally offended the entire Polish nation.
While presenting a posthumous Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a Polish World War II resistance fighter, Obama said Karski went “into the Warsaw ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself.” Though the remark may only resonate with the most devoted History Channel viewers in America, it sent the Polish people into a tizzy. As the Economist explains, Poles have been trying to discourage the use of the term “Polish death camps,” as they’re understandably sensitive about being conflated with Nazis.
Though the news broke in the middle of the night in Poland, it quickly made the front page of major newspapers and Polish leaders demanded an apology in strongly worded tweets. The White House came through, with National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor saying:
“The President misspoke — he was referring to Nazi death camps in Poland. We regret this misstatement, which should not detract from the clear intention to honor Mr. Karski and those brave citizens who stood on the side of human dignity in the face of tyranny.”
It probably isn’t the personal mea culpa the Poles wanted, but at least President Obama didn’t pull a Marion Barry and declare that he “never intended to denigrate Polacks.”