Wagner’s music is actually better than it sounds, Mark Twain liked to joke. The same can’t be said for Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign speech Thursday in Berlin.
Obama’s speech fell flat. It amounts to an unforced error, perhaps prompted by the need to score another historic “first,” like Obama’s embarrassing claim at the outset that “I know that I don’t look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken in this great city.”
As Victor Davis Hanson points out
nearby, two distinguished blacks have served as secretary of State, representing the U.S. at the highest diplomatic level in Europe and around the world for the past seven years. But Obama seldom lets facts get in the way of self-congratulation.
As always, there’s no lack of self-regard: “Now the world will watch and remember what we do here — what we do with this moment.” But there’s a complete absence of irony in a phrase that unconsciously recalls Lincoln’s modest prediction that “the world will little note or long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they” — the honored dead — “did here.”
Obama’s speech itself is an unusually restrained and cautious piece of work, crafted for delivery in Berlin and for its impact Stateside. Its aim was to skirt the Scylla of unabashed Europhilia (a la John Kerry) and the Charybdis of American exceptionalism (the Founding Fathers). The result is an intellectual shipwreck.
It does not help that Obama can’t quite make up his mind about walls, the metaphor meant to hold the speech together. “The fall of the Berlin Wall brought new hope,” Obama rightly says. “But that very closeness,” Obama goes on to say in the next sentence, “has given rise to new dangers — dangers that cannot be contained within the borders of a country or by the distance of an ocean.”
But wait. This unwalled, borderless world where transnational threats abound is now threatened by — you guessed it — new walls. And these new walls in turn cut off the ties that bind, while “the burdens of global citizenship” — what’s that? — “continue to bind us together.” Obama thus concludes: “That is why the greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another.”
By now most Americans are probably wondering what happened to the sound adage that good fences make good neighbors.
In any case, the speech’s metaphorical walls ultimately collapse under the weight of all the mix-and-match platitudes (see Jim Geraghty’s quiz) and historical inaccuracies or misjudgments. The latter are more troubling than the former, as their presence suggests that how a phrase reads matters more than whether it makes sense or it’s true. Consider this: “Not only have the walls come down in Berlin, but they have come down in Belfast, where Protestant and Catholic have found a way to live together.” That’s just plain wrong: There are now more “peace walls” in Belfast than at the time of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, while residential segregation has increased.