I must confess to a weakness for listening and reading good political speeches. I wrote an article a while back on the top ten American political speeches of all time and never had so much fun writing and researching anything.
What determines a good political speech? Theodore H. White believed there were three elements that made a speech special. First, the moment in history when the words are delivered helps frame the speech and give it the proper context. Second, there must be a suitable backdrop: Gettysburg Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, the House of Burgess in 1775 where the focus of American resistance to British tyranny settled. Patrick Henry giving his “Give me Liberty or give me death” speech in a tavern or in a church would not have been as impactful.
Finally, the words themselves must be memorable, crafted so that the man, the moment, and the backdrop all come together to create superior oratory.
For Barack Obama, it might be unfair to saddle him with the expectation that he would make a speech as memorable as the address delivered by John Kennedy when Berlin was the flashpoint for nuclear confrontation with the Soviets and the airlift still fresh in Berliners’ memories. Or that Obama could match an address that was as emotionally satisfying as Reagan’s challenge to the Soviets to “tear down this wall” when hope for change had been stoked to a very high level by Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost. Reagan and Kennedy went to Berlin in order to accomplish something specific. Obama went to Berlin to make a campaign commercial.
Obama is not president. There is no great crisis in Berlin or in Europe that would make Tiergarten Park a place of resonance for his words to echo down through the ages. Instead, he was a political candidate with the gift of oratory who came to Berlin to show the folks back home that he wasn’t a total rookie when it comes to overseas affairs.
The first leg of his trip was designed to underscore the candidate’s knowledge and judgment about Afghanistan, Iraq, and the thorny issues of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Playing to rave reviews in the press and getting a boost from the Iraqis who appeared to embrace his talk of setting a timetable for American withdrawal, the first leg was judged a big success by the punditocracy (could it ever have been anything else?).
But was it really necessary to come to Western Europe? This leg almost appears to be included for the sake of vanity — to show how much the rest of the world wants Obama to be president. Outside of a few American expatriates, there are no votes to be harvested there. Only photo-ops with leaders of countries about which most Americans could care less.
But that didn’t stop the hype from beginning to build days in advance for Obama’s Tiergarten Park speech, moved after the German government gently refused permission for an address at the Brandenberg Gate. Some enthusiasts in Germany predicted a million people would turn out for the party. Last night, the Obama crew sought to tone down expectations considerably, and it’s a good thing they did: somewhere between 100-200,000 turned out for Obama’s attempt to leave his mark on history. Still an enormous throng but not the overwhelming crush of humanity that some were saying would show up.
The speech itself was good, filled with plenty of Obama cliches that somehow sound new when he delivers them. It was well delivered like all Obama addresses, but curiously subdued at times. Whether it was because a sizable segment of the audience did not speak English or some other reason, Obama seemed to struggle in getting reaction from the crowd. Interrupted several times by applause, the speech nevertheless was not greeted with the wild enthusiasm many expected. There was occasional chanting of “O-BA-MA” and “YES-WE-CAN,” but it wasn’t sustained and tailed off rather quickly.