Remarks by Hon.
On accepting the Award of Recognition from
The Washington Metropolitan Area Division, Polish American Congress
Thanksgiving Dinner, November 21, 2004
I stand here today with mixed feelings. On the one hand I am honored and flattered and on the other I have a somewhat guilty feeling because I know that there are many among you who are at least as worthy of this kind of honor. Which puts me in mind of an experience I had when I first came to Congress. I was still learning my way around the maze of corridors, and offices and elevators when I came to an elevator and pushed the button. A lad of about ten or eleven who was standing alongside me also waiting said, “I already pushed it.” I replied, “thank you.” As we stood there waiting I could sense his staring at me. Then he suddenly blurted, “Are you a Congressman?” I was only thirty-six years old, newly elected, so it was with a tinge of pride that I responded, “yes.” Whereupon he somewhat plaintively said, “You know I can’t tell a Congressman from a regular man.”
I think there is a broad message in those words for both the public and elected officials. We are all as they say mere mortals. Too often that is forgotten by those elected and they behave as if they were anointed to serve in the positions they hold and, on the other hand, many in the public regard their elected officials as some sort of superior beings. The country is better served without such illusions and I hope that these few introductory words will contribute to better understanding the realities of democratic government. While the performance of a public official deserves to be judged on his integrity, effort, morality and judgment, we should not expect an official to be divine or infallible. I deeply appreciate the honor you have accorded me but I would like to underscore that I am just trying to be a “regular man.”
Serving as your speaker this afternoon I was asked to share some of my experiences as a Congressman and my involvement with Poland and Polonia. It was interesting to me that in reviewing some of my files, I discovered that I spoke at the PAC convention in Detroit in 1972 and at that time alluded to the fact that the PAC was established in 1944 which means that this is its 60 anniversary. It is fair to say that any organization which has lasted sixty years has had to accomplish much to achieve such longevity.
The PAC through the years has supported the cause of Polish immigrants, the election and appointment of Polish Americans to positions in government and cultural and educational exchanges. It vigorously supported and assisted Solidarnosc during its struggles with the regime in Poland and worked hard to include Poland as a member of NATO. The PAC has been steadfast in defending the good name of Poles and Poland. Efforts such as these are continuing under the inspiring leadership of the Mireckis and others here in the Washington area, not to speak of Sir Walter. A poignant example of the duration of such efforts in the Polish cause was a letter which I recently came upon which was sent to me by Cass Lenard, executive director, on April 23, 1974 exhorting me to commemorate Polish Constitution Day by making a statement in the Congressional Record. He said, “The Poles, longing for the day of deliverance, do need your words of hope and encouragement to sustain them in psychological resistance to communism and Soviet domination.”
It was another fifteen years before some sun began to shine on Poland through the bravery and dedication of Lech Walesa and Solidarity. The days of the Cold War following WWII were dark indeed for Poland and for much of the world. When I came to Congress in 1961 dealing with the Polish Embassy was a touchy proposition. I recall being invited to attend a gathering of Polish American Congressmen whose number was substantially greater than it is now but included four members from Chicago, Pucinski, Kluczynski, Derwinski and Rostenkowski: three from Detroit, Dingell, Lesinski, and Nedzi; Duiski from Buffalo; Zablocki and O’Konski from Milwaukee; and Helstoski from New Jersey. Knowing of the strong antipathy of our Polish constituents and our Polish organizations, including the PAC, to the Polish government and its representatives at that time, there was considerable debate among us as to whether the invitation should be accepted.
Nevertheless, we decided to attend. The meeting was held in an unpretentious basement of Ambassador Drozniak’s modest residence. I cannot recall the details but I can say that the atmosphere was icy as the ambassador clearly followed the Moscow line with regard to U.S. relations. In contrast, what a pleasure it is to experience the relationship that Polonia has with embassy personnel today. Back then the most that can be said was that we established an acquaintanceship but it did not lead to anything constructive.
Some time later the late Congressman Zablocki conceived the idea of the construction of a children’s hospital in Poland using U.S. counterpart funds. During the Cold War the U.S. shipped considerable amounts of grain to Poland which were paid for in Zloty with the provision that the money could only be spent in Poland. These funds were largely used for embassy expenses, cultural exchanges, and the visits of congressional and other government delegations but there remained a considerable surplus.
Thanks to Congressman Zablocki’s perseverance and the strong support of the Polish-American delegation in Congress, the hospital was built and was dedicated in 1966. Ambassador Gronouski was at the dedication outside of Krakow which Peggy and I attended during our first visit to Poland. The hospital still thrives. In fact, the late Jeanette Szulec of Detroit included the hospital in her will with a substantial legacy.
As you all know through those dark days the Polish people resisted the clutch of the Soviets whether through the maintenance of private farm ownership, continuing their devotion to the Church, or generally letting it be known that communism was repugnant and they yearned to be free. In the U.S., Polish organizations, notably the PAC, were steadfast in their support of the cause of Polish freedom. I spoke at scores of Kosciuszko, Pulaski or Trzeciego Maja celebrations in which the plight of the Polish people was always vigorously stressed. With Andrzej Pomian of Radio Free Europe and Joseph Gidynski of the Voice of America I made well over a hundred broadcasts in Polish to Poland. Our office was available to assist the Polish cause whenever it was possible and I am sure many of you are aware of Mary Flanagan’s superb efforts while on my staff.
In 1978 and 1980 I represented President Carter at the Poznan Trade Fair and what was striking about those experiences was the palpable difference in the attitudes of the people. While during my earlier visits people to whom you spoke were very guarded and displayed great uneasiness or even fear in expressing themselves about the government, during these later visits there was an eagerness to discuss the country’s problems and criticize the government. It was clear that changes had taken place and that more would take place.
I came to the Congress while Kennedy was President and I left with the election of Ronald Reagan. Though I had no opposition for reelection it was time for me to leave. The experience was gratifying but I felt the job was for a younger man. I had witnessed too many of my colleagues hang on beyond their usefulness and vowed that would not happen to me. I had lost the enthusiasm and the energy political life demanded but was still young enough to return to the practice of law which I pursued with satisfaction until another great opportunity occurred and it came as a result of the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe following the successes of Solidarnosc.
The most basic ingredient of a democratic system of government is a freely elected parliament. This occurred in Poland, but for a parliament to be effective it must be appropriately staffed and technically equipped to perform its functions. In September of 1989, Senator Domenici, of New Mexico, after a visit to Poland and meeting with newly elected Polish parliamentarians, concluded that they lacked the basic essentials of a viable parliament such as staff, computers, office equipment, adequate rules and procedures and the like. Upon his return he introduced a bill which was entitled a “gift of democracy” which provided for sending legislative, computer and library experts to Poland to assess their needs and report back so that a program of assistance could be formulated.
When I learned that the House of Representatives also passed the bill, I communicated to Speaker Tom Foley my interest in being a part of this effort and that I spoke Polish and had been a member of the House Administration Committee for my entire congressional career and that my fees were reasonable, pro bono. With his blessing I became a member of the delegation to go to Poland and make assessments of their parliamentary needs. Interestingly, at that time we worked with many hard working staff on the Polish side among whom was an intelligent and dedicated individual in the person of present Ambassador Grudzinski. Ambassador Grudzinski was a stalwart leader who was largely responsible for making the program the success it became.
The needs of the parliament were woeful. Their resources were scarce. Those elected were excellent politicians but they were not parliamentarians so it was invaluable for them to be advised on staff requirements, office equipment, parliamentary rules, library facilities, communication equipment etc. etc. Over the ensuing months there were many visits to Poland as well as many meetings in Washington with Polish parliamentarians and staff In addition, the congress authorized sending to Poland computers, copying machines, office equipment and substantial quantities of library materials which formed much of the foundation of a research service similar to our own Congressional Research Service. Poland was the first of the former communist countries in which such a program was formulated. It proved to be so successful that Poland became a model for the other emerging democracies and Pultusk served as a meeting place for neighboring countries. In fact, similar programs were organized in the Baltic countries, Romania. Bulgaria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ukraine, Albania, Macedonia, even Uzbekistan. But I can tell you that nowhere were our efforts better received or utilized than in Poland.
It was a most rewarding experience. The experience was particularly rewarding because of the dedicated individuals one was privileged to work with; from the U.S. Congressmen who comprised a task force overseeing the project, to the library and congressional staffers, to the scores of foreign parliamentary staffers with enthusiasm fueled by the freedom occasioned by the end of the Cold War. The U.S. Congress deserves to be credited for enthusiastically supporting this program which obviously had no political mileage and received minimum publicity in the U.S. but did so much to establish viable and lasting foundations for democratic governments.
There is some advice that an old congressman once gave me and that was, when you are invited to speak stand up so they can see you, speak up so they can hear you and sit down so they can appreciate you. I perhaps should have followed his advice more closely but I want to conclude by thanking you for honoring me, but more importantly for all of your years of dedication and successful efforts in behalf of the causes we share.
- Bóg Zap³aæ.