US Presidents in Berlin: Then and now

Half a century ago President John F. Kennedy inspired hundreds of thousands of Berliners and millions from around the world when he announced: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” In 1987 President Ronald Reagan demanded “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall,” as he stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate. This came to be two years later. This June, President Barack Obama stood at the same place and, in contrast to his speech five years ago in Berlin, he failed to inspire the spectators and his audience back home.

Obama in Berlin, the verdict? Fails to Inspire!

What was he supposed to say? “Ich bin ‘auch’ ein Berliner!” “Mr. Putin, let Americans adopt Russian children!” When the Berliners learned that Obama, the most powerful man in the world, was coming to their city to speak at the Brandenburg Gate, the reactions were, as you would expect, mixed. Some groaned: “Berlin will become a fortress, it will be impossible to drive.” Some celebrated: “Berlin is in the headlines again! Berlin is really loved!” Most just waited for him to come and then leave. In the end, he spent more time in Berlin than JFK, but with much less effect.

It is 50 years since the Kennedy speech and five years since Chancellor Merkel rejected candidate Obama’s request that he be permitted to speak at the Brandenburg Gate, Obama was now coming as a triumphator – a victor on tip toes. The Lone Ranger in sneakers. What he and his advisors could not have envisaged was how quickly his fame was melting in the pre-summer heat: “You were going to close Guantanamo – right?” “You think drones are cool – most Germans don’t.” And: “You think spying on non-American citizens is hunky-dory – that is the worst.” (East) Germans lived through almost 57 years of totalitarian regimes, they have had enough of state observation and spying to last several generations. They can’t be blamed if they are as afraid of Big Brother as they are of hyper-inflation.

Sure: a majority of Germans would probably still vote for Obama vs. Romney or McCain, but the spread is growing smaller. Compared to most other real or virtual candidates, Obama is still faring well; compared to his best results, he has every reason to be concerned.

And so all of the select 4,500 – 6,000 ticket holders set out to rejoice and regret at Obama’s feet. Rejoice that our president was going to talk in Berlin, regret the intrusive security and a long walk (1/2 mile) in the merciless sun. We sat there, cooking in 100°F heat – I think my straw-hat’s sweatband started to smoke. He didn’t use a teleprompter (various reasons were given), although there were two there – he actually looked as if he were reading from an iPad. He said what we expected him to say, there was Guantanamo, surveillance and Snowden, he offered a nuclear (not: ‘nukkeler’) olive branch to Putin, gave Angela a kiss on each cheek, deftly skirted other issues and, in as much time as it takes Le Brun to beat the pants off the Spurs, he was off into the wild, blue yonder. Hi-Ho Silver, Away! As the dust settled and I wiped the steam emanating from my now caramelized brow, I couldn’t help but wonder that if I’d stayed at home and watched TV, Obama would have forgiven me.

There was one sad irony to the day however. Simultaneous to the big hullabaloo in Berlin, Gyula Horn, former Hungarian Prime Minister, died in a Budapest hospital. Horn, together with Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock, took wire cutters on June 27, 1989 to remove the barbed wire between their countries, ushering in the demise of communist rule in Eastern Europe and, in the end, making it possible for Obama to speak where he did.

Photo Credit: JVG, Michael Kappeler/dpa

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