Politics & Policy

Obama Sings the Song of Himself

A flat performance in Berlin.

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.

Such carelessness with easily verifiable facts is troubling, given Obama’s 300-person mini-State Department and all the former senior Clinton Administration officials along for the ride. Does no one check facts? Or are staff too awed by the One to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear? Or do they all think the rest of us are too dumb or awestruck to notice?

Consider also this throw-away line. “In this century — in this city of all cities — we must reject the Cold War mind-set of the past.” Does Obama mean to suggest that the West bears responsibility for the current frosty relations with Russia? More specifically, are Russian military threats and energy blackmail reasonable responses to Western provocations? Whose “Cold War mind-set” does he mean? Putin’s? Or NATO’s?

This sloppiness ultimately matters rather more than the silly platitudes (“This is the moment to give our children back their future”). But these were meat and drink for the youngsters who flocked to hear Obama say:

As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking the coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya.

This was the mood-music German youths came to hear, never mind the lyrics. How well it goes down Stateside is another matter, since there’s no largely post-Christian culture here that favors the growth of a neo-pagan environmental cult.

The upshot is that this speech was an unforced error, another judgment call that Obama got wrong. No one forced him to give the first-ever presidential campaign speech before a mass audience of non-voters overseas. And he can’t say he wasn’t warned, considering these pointed remarks from the German chancellor’s spokesman:

It’s unusual to hold election rallies abroad. No German candidate for high office would even think of using the National Mall (in Washington) or Red Square in Moscow for a rally because it would not be seen as appropriate.

In case the freshman Illinois senator missed the point, the chancellor herself later added: “If the candidate — or any other candidate is elected, then (he) is welcome to speak as president before the Brandenburg Gate.” Even some American reporters, heretofore Obama’s biggest boosters, raised the same concerns about a premature victory lap, as this little colloquy in Politico shows:

“It is not going to be a political speech,” said a senior foreign policy adviser, who spoke to reporters on background. “When the president of the United States goes and gives a speech, it is not a political speech or a political rally.

“But he is not president of the United States,” a reporter reminded the adviser.

Indeed.

 John F. Cullinan, a lawyer, is an expert on international human rights and religious freedom.

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