George Bush was expected to meet Lech Walesa - privately. Instead, the vice-president climaxed his four-day visit to Poland this week by making a dramatic appearance with the leader of the now-banned independent union Solidarity - publicly.
The men arrived Monday morning in the same limousine at St. Stanislaw Church, where murdered pro-Solidarity priest Jerzy Popieluszko is buried. As the crowd cheered chants for Solidarity, Mr. Bush waved a V-for-victory sign in support of the union.
With television cameras filming the scene for use in campaign ads, Bush's presidential ambitions undoubtedly were an important motivation behind the emotional gesture. But the vice-president also broke new diplomatic ground.
In the past, Western leaders visiting Warsaw have met with Polish opposition leaders in embassies or in their apartments. Elsewhere in the region, dissidents long have complained that American diplomats often kept only sporadic contacts with them out of fear of offending the communist authorities.
This hesitation is receding, say dissidents and diplomats interviewed recently in Budapest and Prague. In Hungary, underground editor Miklos Haraszti says he has met twice with the United States ambassador. In Czechoslovakia, Jiri Dienstbier, leader of the Charter 77 human rights group, reports that a US diplomat recently spent a weekend with his family at his country cottage. ``Imagine that, an entire weekend at my house,'' said Mr. Dienstbier. ``I never would have thought it possible.''
The increased contacts illustrate what may turn into a consistent two-track policy. While reaffirming US support for Solidarity, Bush signaled by his visit Washington's desire to increase and improve relations with the Warsaw government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, diplomats say.
Just before dining with Mr. Walesa Sunday, Bush met with Jaruzelski and promised to help Poland obtain a rescheduling from the Paris Club of its $35 billion debt. The two countries also announced the official exchange of ambassadors and to sign a new accord on scientific cooperation.
Bush's visit came at a crucial juncture, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's call for reforms could lead to vast changes throughout the region. Jaruzelski has announced that he will make proposals for further economic and political reform next month. A crucial meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee is scheduled for the last week of October.
Though official reaction to Bush's public pro-Solidarity appearances was negative, the commentary was not strident. Jaruzelski needs US assistance to carry out economic and political reform. American recognition not only helps him deal with his debt problem; it helps legitimize his authority, both at home and in the West.