Every so often, whole populations appear to suspend their powers of judgment and swamp themselves in emotion. It was impossible, for example, to say at the time that the Beatles were mediocre musicians and rather childish in their opinions, or that the late Princess Diana was a seriously troubled young woman causing havoc around her. Senator Barack Obama is similarly whipping up European levels of irrationality. What a phenomenon his tour of the main continental capitals has been! As my friend Josef Joffe, the editor of the German newspaper Die Zeit and a highly rational man, put it, “He’s being celebrated like a victorious Roman general who comes back from the conquest of Gaul or something.”
200,000 people gathered in the open air in Berlin to listen to him. They applauded, they cheered, especially when he told them that America was less than perfect, and had failed to live up to its ideals – a fault that Change We Can Believe In would instantly remedy. Only some 25 years ago, crowds like this had assembled and marched in protest against the stationing in Germany of Cruise missiles to protect the country against the Soviet Union.
In Paris, President Nicolas Sarkozy fawned over him. They’d met before, he said, and “One of us became president, the other just has to do the same thing.” He was virtually endorsing him. It was the same in London, where Prime Minister Brown and leader of the opposition David Cameron fought for time and photo-ops. Tony Blair flew in from the Middle East, to resolve its disputes over a breakfast publicized with special smarminess.
Now the BBC correspondent in Washington is someone called Matt Frei. His hall-mark has long been a high-minded contempt for all things American. They brought him over for Obama’s trip, and his reports and body-language suddenly pointed the way to a rational explanation for the flood-tide of emotion. All this Obama mania is only the flip side of anti-Americanism. They’re all hoping for a president who will dismantle everything the United States stands for, and so prove them to be the intellectual and moral superiors they think they are. That may be what Jo Joffe meant when he tagged that enigmatic “or something” on to the end of his great remark.