Did what happened today really happen? The Polish president dead in a plane crash, together with his wife, dozens of parliamentary deputies and dozens more political dignitaries, party officials, military leaders? A crash in Russia–a place to where Polish politicians never travel en masse, indeed rarely travel at all–but where they were going today to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn forest mass murder of thousands of Polish reserve officers by Stalinist Russia.
I knew Lech Kaczynski, the deceased president. Met him en route to a conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1999 marking the tenth anniversary of the Round Table accords that brought the old system to an end. What was so striking is that he seemed so shy, so reticent, so insecure. That is not something one hears often in recollections of future presidents. But Kaczynski seemed more to want to be a quiet, unassuming representative of the marginalized than a big political leader. He had been a child movie star, a tough anti-communist oppositionist, and then a Solidarity trade union official in the 1980s, serving even as the union’s de facto president in 1990 when others in the union turned to politics. But then he allowed himself to get drawn to politics, perhaps under the pressure of his twin brother, Jaroslaw, a loner by personality who committed his life to politics but who seemed to be unable to do it happily without having his brother do it with him.
If President Kaczynski in fact got into politics out of sympathy with his brother, it would be consistent with his personality. For he maintained a social sensitivity his entire life. He looked out for people who didn’t always seem able to do it themselves. In fact, he might well have been one of those people himself.
When I met Lech in 1999, he kept a distance from the more colorful politicians at the conference with him. I remember walking with a group of them to a bar after the evening panel. Lech was walking alone, about five paces behind. As the others were about to go inside–superstar dissident theorist Adam Michnik, famous underground journalist Dawid Warszawski, former prime minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski leading the way–one of them turned to Kaczynski and gestured for him to come inside too. "May I?," sheepishly asked the future president.
So Kaczynski’s sympathy with the little guy seemed to come from the fact that he felt like one himself. It’s not surprising that even when he became president, he didn’t particularly seem to like the job. His body language oozed discomfort at state functions, foreign visits, or on TV. This contributed to the bad press he got in the West: foreign leaders thought he was trying to send a message that he would not deliver straightforwardly. But Kaczynski was uncomfortable with all government officials, laying back only in private conversations with those not in the elite. I remember conversations with him in Poland’s parliamentary cafeteria in 1999, his broad smile and big laugh, which dropped from his face only when some parliamentarian or government official noticed him and came by to share a few words.
Why then did he run for president? Weirdly, this too sometimes seemed to be a favor for his brother. At campaign headquarters when news came in of his victory, he turned to his brother and, with his first words as president-elect, said, "Mr. Prime Minister, mission accomplished!" He was a self-effacing president during the two years when his brother served as prime minister. But when the opposition party Civic Platform won elections in 2007, President Kaczynski became more active–too often in a shrill and strident way, though this too seemed to result from his own discomfort in the role, his inability to inhabit it fully. He really didn’t seem to care for elites–even when he became one of them.