Friday, July 25, 2008

Obama Postgame

I had a pretty good vantage point for Obama's big Berlin speech yesterday. It wasn't - as Salon's Joan Walsh opines - "political brilliance." Nor was it - as Time claims - "a soaring address that invoked echoes of the famous speeches in this city in which John F. Kennedy made common cause with Berliners against communist oppression in 1963 and Ronald Reagan called nearly 20 years ago to tear down the Berlin Wall."

No, Obama's speech didn't make history. But after years of tensions with Europe, Obama's appearance was a lovely gesture of friendship and good will. He offered up a laundry list of mostly good-to-excellent foreign policy initiatives and approaches. But the speech wasn't wonky. He wrapped it all up in a warmly welcomed vision of America as an equal, cooperative partner, which constrastly nicely with the global policeman, cowboy, and rogue state that Germans have perceived over the past eight years. You can read the full text of his speech here or here, and you can also view the video. So instead of summarizing it, I'd rather discuss its reception - a point that the media has analyzed rather superficially, possibly because the respectable press had a comfy perch on risers rather than mingling with the sweaty audience.

The crowd itself was remarkably young. I was probably in the upper quintile as far as age went - and I'm younger than Obama himself. The typical audience member was somewhere in their twenties, and German, although it seemed as though every American in Berlin (except for the one dear soul babysitting my kids) had turned out for the show, along with a noticeable smattering of Italians. The Democrats in Berlin were working their butts off to register voters - a smart tactic, given that the expat community tilts liberal anyway, and I doubt many Republicans bothered with the hour-plus wait at the security checkpoints.

Photo from Obama's campaign, aka Flickr user Barack Obama (!), used under a Creative Commons license. This shot must have been taken about two hours before the speech started, or shortly before I got through security. Note the crush of humanity still behind the barricades; by the end of the evening, this whole area was packed.

Oh, and the crowd was huge. The police are estimating upward of 200,000. The Berliner Morgenpost - a paper known for lowballing crowd size - puts it at about 215,000. I was pretty far enough forward, in the middle of the actual plaza where he spoke; I'd hope to get even closer, but we arrived only two hours before the speech. Also, the crowd was much denser than at Grateful Dead shows, where you could dance your way close to the stage. At any rate, I was far enough forward that I couldn't see the long column of bodies filling the boulevard behind me. And I did get a pretty decent view of Obama, albeit one filtered through the dreadlocks of a guy in front of me. Plus, have I mentioned that Germans are really, really tall? So at just over 5'7" I was craning my neck constantly.

Photo of the view down Strasse des 17. Juni by Flickr user helter-skelter, used under a Creative Commons license. Note the big screen on the left. The trees lining the street are part of Berlin's lovely central park, the Tiergarten.

The set-up did look remarkably like the "fan mile" during the World Cup, complete with giant screens for those not lucky to get as close as I did. Oh, and there were even stands hawking beer, both inside and outside the security checkpoint. When's the last time you could buy beer at a political rally? Now, not too many people were actually drinking it. The weather was hot (mid-80s, but hotter due to all the bodies) and the portapotties so vile that I would've preferred dehydration. But the Berliner Kindl did remind me that I definitely wasn't in Ohio anymore.

Photo by me, Sungold. Berliner Kindl is not a very good beer, by German standards.

Another thing that I don't recall ever seeing at a major political rally, including Kerry/Edwards in Dayton in 2004 or Michelle Obama's stop in Athens, Ohio: There were no preliminaries. No introductions apart from his name. Once the security helicopter hovered low as his motorcade arrived, it was all Obama.

Photo by Sungold - you can see the security copter to the left of the Siegessäule.

Obama began with a reference to the Berlin Airlift (which, as I've said more than once before, is politically smart to tap into) but belabored the story much longer than necessary for his live audience. Even a young crowd of Germans is on top of the history. He also relied on clichés and oversimplifications. Do we really still believe that the Soviet tanks were ready to roll westward? I wasn't the only one who criticized this: We were hanging with an old friend who is German, Jewish, and a historian, and she would just as happily have deleted that whole section of the speech. I can only think that both the excess detail and the oversimplification were geared to his audience in the States. Or maybe his speechwriters just missed the mark.

Politically, too, the first section of the speech was somewhat misguided. Obama devoted too much attention to the old Soviet menace. Sure, Berlin's significance comes largely from its Cold War history. But as my husband said afterward, you can't demonize the Soviets at the start of the speech and then credibly ask them for greater cooperation at the end of it. Somewhere in the middle, you'd have to express some grounds for friendship - but that didn't happen.

The problem is, the farther the Cold War recedes into the past, the harder it is for a visiting politician to tap into Berlin's former drama. When Kennedy came here, the city felt besieged, and the Wall was like a fresh laceration running through the city. Without the barbed wire and gun turrets, no politician who visits here can summon up the same tension or significance. That's why Clinton's 1994 speech was not especially memorable - and why it's now virtually impossible to give a "historic speech in Berlin." In fact, despite all the pre-speech analogies between Obama and JFK, this city is probably the one place where the comparison is most doomed.

So, while Obama's repeated references to the Wall and the airlift worked fairly well as metaphors, they were also predictable and went on too long. They weren't able to catapult his speech into the realm of history. For that, he'd have to do something new and different - like he did when he addressed race in America last winter. That was a historic speech.

Photo by Flickr user azrael74, used under a Creative Commons license. Alas, I got no picture of my own because my camera's battery was dying by this point and so zooming was out of the question, never mind the dreadlocks in front of me.

When Obama turned to his vision of American in the world, the crowd warmed up. However, there was one real clunker (as the UK's Guardian notes, too): His call for greater NATO involvement in Afghanistan and in fighting Al Qaeda drew only very muted, polite applause - and quite a few skeptical remarks from the people in my vicinity. Including me. I agree that the Taliban remains a problem, and that we can't just turn our back on it. But what Afghanistan lacks is a functioning civil society and the rule of law. I'm not convinced that continuing to attack Pakistani military bases (oops!) and Afghan wedding parties (double oops!) is going to foster either of those things.

But if Obama's anti-terror rhetoric struck a Berlin crowd as leaden and misguided, that's probably because that snippet of the speech was aimed entirely at his home audience. Lo and behold, MSNBC took the bait with the headline "In Berlin, Obama urges war against terror" and the following lede:
Before the largest crowd of his campaign, Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama on Thursday summoned Europeans and Americans together to "defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it" as surely as they conquered communism a generation ago.
In fact, this was a tiny part of the speech. I think Obama sincerely believes we need to act more aggressively in Afghanistan and Pakistan (he said this already during the primary). But I really wish he didn't feel compelled to play the rhetorical game of invoking 9/11 and Al-Qaeda.

The rest of his speech got a truly warm reception. As another longtime German friend of mine said afterward, "I wasn't impressed with the first half, but by the end I was satisfied." And so was I.

Here's what people loved best, judging from the clapping, whoops, and hollers:

Obama's thank-yous to his German hosts drew a big (but sympathetic) laugh when he totally mangled the pronunciation of Chancellor Angela Merkel (evidently no one told him that the E is pronounced like a long A, so it came out "Murkle") and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit (which is admittedly a mouthful even if you know the language).

The longest, strongest applause came when Obama promised to bring the war to a close:
And despite past differences, this is the moment when the world should support the millions of Iraqis who seek to rebuild their lives, even as we pass responsibility to the Iraqi government and finally bring this war to a close.
Nearly equal enthusiasm met his call to negotiate with Iran, contain nuclear weapons, and rebuild the Atlantic partnership. He twice invoked the genocide in Darfur and mentioned Zimbabwe's crisis as well - two issues he needs to bring before an American audience as well. His Berlin audience appreciated it; I personally would have liked to hear him say more about our responsibility to Africa.

People also clapped long and hard for Obama's pledge to finally take responsibility for America's emissions:
As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya. ... This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet. Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands. Let us resolve that all nations – including my own – will act with the same seriousness of purpose as has your nation, and reduce the carbon we send into our atmosphere. This is the moment to give our children back their future. This is the moment to stand as one.
Statements like this one - which expressed a healthy humility - aren't necessarily going to win over voters in Colorado or North Dakota or Ohio. And that's why I think Obama wasn't entirely blowing smoke when he started his speech by saying, "Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen – a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world." Sure, there was a bit of pandering on terrorism, but the speech was much more geared to rebuilding European-American relations.

Apart from his promise to end the war, this line brought possibly the longest, warmest applause at all:
The greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another. The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.
Sucker that I am, I got a little teary - not just at the sentiment, but at the stark contrast between this rhetoric and Bush's cowboy posturing. I was almost embarrassed - until I saw the tall, blonde, German woman next to me surreptitiously dabbing at her eyes, too. (Then my husband said, "What about the agnostics?" and the spell dissolved into laughter.)

At the end of the speech, that same woman turned to me and said, "If he can manage to half of these things, you Americans ought to bring back the monarchy." We laughed, and she then said, "Seriously, it does such good to hear these things from an American again."

And then we all trudged homeward. The crowd was so thick that getting out took nearly as long as getting in. But there was impromptu entertainment along the way ...

Photo by Sungold.

... until suddenly the crowd thinned and fresh air flooded in and my German historian friend totally upstaged Obama by spilling the news that - at age 42 and after giving up on it - she's pregnant. And after I'd finished jumping up and down and hollering in celebration, my husband and I hopped on our bikes and rode the breeze home under a fuchsia sunset along the banks of the Spree River.

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