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.
Obama used the seminal event in Berlin’s history — the 1948 airlift — as well as the former presence of the Berlin Wall to talk not as an American but as “a citizen of the world” to the “people of the world.” After a glowing recitation of how Germans and Americans worked together to save Berlin during the Soviet blockade, Obama consciously evoked the memory of John Kennedy, if not in words then in meter and imagery. Where Kennedy challenged the world by telling the doubters “Let them come to Berlin” and see what free men were capable of, Obama called on “people of the world” to come to Berlin and witness what the German-American partnership had accomplished:
People of the world — look at Berlin!
Look at Berlin, where Germans and Americans learned to work together and trust each other less than three years after facing each other on the field of battle.
Look at Berlin, where the determination of a people met the generosity of the Marshall Plan and created a German miracle; where a victory over tyranny gave rise to NATO, the greatest alliance ever formed to defend our common security.
Look at Berlin, where the bullet holes in the buildings and the somber stones and pillars near the Brandenburg Gate insist that we never forget our common humanity.
People of the world — look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one.
With “walls” as context, Obama sought to show that new walls that have been erected in place of the east- west divide must also be torn down:
That is why 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.
We know they have fallen before. After centuries of strife, the people of Europe have formed a Union of promise and prosperity. Here, at the base of a column built to mark victory in war, we meet in the center of a Europe at peace. Not only have walls come down in Berlin, but they have come down in Belfast, where Protestant and Catholic found a way to live together; in the Balkans, where our Atlantic alliance ended wars and brought savage war criminals to justice; and in South Africa, where the struggle of a courageous people defeated apartheid.
So history reminds us that walls can be torn down. But the task is never easy. True partnership and true progress requires constant work and sustained sacrifice. They require sharing the burdens of development and diplomacy; of progress and peace. They require allies who will listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other.
His call to bring down the walls between “Christians, Muslims, and Jews” received the largest applause of the speech. That, his call to end the Iraq War, and his desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons drew the only enthusiastic responses from the throng during the entire speech.
Obama didn’t get much reaction when he called on the people for support of the effort in Afghanistan and against terrorism in general:
This is the moment when we must defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it. This threat is real and we cannot shrink from our responsibility to combat it. If we could create NATO to face down the Soviet Union, we can join in a new and global partnership to dismantle the networks that have struck in Madrid and Amman; in London and Bali; in Washington and New York. If we could win a battle of ideas against the communists, we can stand with the vast majority of Muslims who reject the extremism that leads to hate instead of hope.
This is the moment when we must renew our resolve to rout the terrorists who threaten our security in Afghanistan, and the traffickers who sell drugs on your streets. No one welcomes war. I recognize the enormous difficulties in Afghanistan. But my country and yours have a stake in seeing that NATO’s first mission beyond Europe’s borders is a success. For the people of Afghanistan, and for our shared security, the work must be done. America cannot do this alone. The Afghan people need our troops and your troops; our support and your support to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda, to develop their economy, and to help them rebuild their nation. We have too much at stake to turn back now.
Calling on the Germans to help with security in Afghanistan is pointless since the German government will not allow their troops to engage in combat operations, just like most other NATO countries. Indeed, Obama’s base here at home is having difficulty with his Afghanistan policy, where he calls for additional troops to be transferred from Iraq.
And this bring us to Obama’s peroration:
But I also know how much I love America. I know that for more than two centuries, we have strived — at great cost and great sacrifice — to form a more perfect union; to seek, with other nations, a more hopeful world. Our allegiance has never been to any particular tribe or kingdom — indeed, every language is spoken in our country; every culture has left its imprint on ours; every point of view is expressed in our public squares. What has always united us — what has always driven our people; what drew my father to America’s shores — is a set of ideals that speak to aspirations shared by all people: that we can live free from fear and free from want; that we can speak our minds and assemble with whomever we choose and worship as we please.
Those are the aspirations that joined the fates of all nations in this city. Those aspirations are bigger than anything that drives us apart. It is because of those aspirations that the airlift began. It is because of those aspirations that all free people — everywhere — became citizens of Berlin. It is in pursuit of those aspirations that a new generation — our generation — must make our mark on history.
People of Berlin — and people of the world — the scale of our challenge is great. The road ahead will be long. But I come before you to say that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom. We are a people of improbable hope. Let us build on our common history, and seize our common destiny, and once again engage in that noble struggle to bring justice and peace to our world.
Earlier, Obama alluded to his major campaign theme — that “this is our moment. This is our time.” When placed beside the litany of challenges he issued on Darfur, Iran, the Middle East, nuclear weapons, global warming, and a host of others, his call to action seemed forced and unnatural. Accomplishing anything — especially against the kind of instransigence demonstrated by Darfur or Iran — will take much more than feel-good, cliché-riddled speeches. Since no plan was offered to specifically address these problems, the whole exercise had an air of fantasy about it.
He left the Tiergarten as he had arrived — to thunderous applause. But how will this play in a place like my hometown of Streator, IL — population 15,000 and as close to the middle of Middle America as you can get?
First, I suspect news of the speech will come to most of my fellow Streatorians as a whisper on the wind. Most will not have seen it or read it and will be influenced — if they are influenced at all — by the usual suspects. The media will be talking about the speech for days and a consensus will eventually form. They will also talk to their neighbors about it (Streator is a very neighborly town) and make a judgment of their own.
Will they be impressed that so many turned out to hear an American that they don’t know much about? Will they wonder what the heck the guy was doing in Europe talking to Germans when they would rather have him here talking to Americans, telling them what he’s going to do about gas prices? Will it alter their perception of Obama as a man who doesn’t know as much about foreign affairs as his opponent?
In the end, my fellow townsmen will shrug their shoulders and not think it a big deal anyway. And perhaps, in the larger scheme of things, it isn’t the history-making event it might have been. Obama was hoping for a grand slam home run, a thumping denouement to his overseas trip. Instead, he gave a middling performance in front of a relatively subdued crowd and will come home secure in the knowledge he didn’t strike out — but still finding elusive the time and backdrop that will allow his rhetoric to resonate down through the ages.