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Duly Noted

Wednesday, May 30, 2012, 3:29 pm

David Frum Unclear on the Concept of Gaffes

By Lindsay Beyerstein

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President Obama had a rare foot-in-mouth moment while awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the late Jan Karski, a member of the Polish resistance who infiltrated the Warsaw ghetto and a concentration camp to document Nazi attrocities.

"Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale, and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself," Obama said.

The phrase "Polish death camp" was a gaffe. It was a Nazi death camp in occupied Poland. Karski was a courier between the Polish government-in-exile and the resistance fighters behind enemy lines.

Obama's inapt choice of words created an international incident. The White House corrected the record on its website. The Polish prime minister is demanding that Obama personally address the error, even though the White House has already corrected the mistake on its website and expressed regret for the error.

David Frum of the Daily Beast insists that Obama's statement wasn't a gaffe at all. If it wasn't a gaffe, what was it? Frum seems to think the remark was a kind of Freudian slip that revealed Obama's subconscious equation of Poland with anti-semitism. Frum doesn't offer any evidence to support this hypothesis, beyond the fact that a lot of people openly criticize Poland's history of anti-semitism.

More likely, Obama--or his speechwriter--made an innocent but bone-headed mistake: "Polish death camp" vs. "death camp in occupied Poland." 

Even if Frum's hunch is correct, that would make Obama's choice of words a classic gaffe. The statement would only fail to be a gaffe would be if we assume Obama deliberately characterized the camp as Polish to deliberately insult Poland. That's crazy. Even Frum isn't willing to go that far.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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