There are no shortcuts to history, but don’t tell that to Barack Obama. In his ongoing campaign to appropriate John F. Kennedy’s aura, the presumptive Democratic nominee has accepted an invitation to speak in Berlin later this month.
It’s not unusual for American presidential candidates to visit Germany’s capital in an election year. But the venue Obama’s handlers have chosen – Berlin’s symbolic and history-laden Brandenburg Gate – is obviously intended to recall Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in Berlin in 1963. The political subtext is clear: “BHO” is JFK’s political heir.
Already, Obama’s planned speech has opened up a political rift in Germany. On the one side is the German Left. Led by Berlin’s socialist-dominated Senate, the city’s ruling body, which invited Obama, they see the invitation as a clever attempt to influence the upcoming American election.
On the other side are those who charge that the senator’s desire to speak at the historic monument is an opportunistic scheme to claim a role traditionally reserved for visiting American heads of state. Letting Obama speak at Brandenburg Gate, they argue, would only encourage vote-hungry foreign politicians to exploit the structure’s symbolism and ultimately cheapen its significance.
This objection is hard to dispute. Until now, only elected American presidents have made speeches in Berlin. Of these, Kennedy’s 1963 speech, delivered at Berlin’s city hall the year the Berlin Wall went up, is among the best known. Likewise, Ronald Reagan delivered his powerful “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” address in 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate. And, at the same historic landmark, Bill Clinton made an equally appropriate “Berlin is free!” oration in 1994.
It’s because of the powerful symbolism of the Brandenburg Gate that Obama’s plan to use it as a backdrop has fractured Germany’s conservative-socialist coalition government. Obama’s presumptuousness even prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel, head of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the coalition, to publically reject the idea last Wednesday. Merkel noted, sensibly, that the edifice has been reserved for elected presidents. She would like to keep it that way.
The chancellor also does not want Germany to be accused of meddling in American politics. Merkel’s spokesman has said that she does not want the American election campaign to be transported before the Brandenburg Gate. For that reason, Merkel’s office has asked Berlin’s government to withdraw its invitation.
But Berlin’s socialist mayor, Klaus Wowereit, has other ideas. He has told Merkel to essentially mind her own business. As he sees it, Berlin’s Senate, a ruling council of eight senators over which Wowereit presides, had the right to invite Obama. But it is noteworthy that all eight senators belong either to Germany’s socialist or (supposedly) former communist parties, strengthening the impression that their invitation is a thinly disguised ploy by the German Left to aid Obama’s campaign.
Germany’s vice-chancellor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a member of the Socialist Party of Germany, the junior partner in the ruling coalition, is also pressing ahead with plans for the visit. Dismissing Merkel’s concerns, Steinmeier says Obama’s proposed appearance at the German landmark would be nothing more than an expression of German-American friendship. Another socialist party politician has gone even further and accused Merkel of being in league with the Republican Party.
Democrats, for their part, have no objection to Obama’s speech. And no wonder: Having Obama appear before an enthusiastic Berlin crowd will boost immensely their strategy to sell the candidate as a new John F. Kennedy. It was Kennedy who made perhaps the most electrifying of the three presidential speeches in Germany’s capital and his defiant proclamation, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” thrown in the faces of communist totalitarians, has kept his memory very much alive in Germany. Now Obama can use it to his advantage.
But it is here that Obama’s plan to co-opt the Kennedy legacy may backfire. Spiegel Online has reported that, in contrast to Kennedy’s imperishable words, Obama’s expression for posterity in his speech will be the feebler, “I can listen.” This phrase, according to Spiegel, may turn up repeatedly in his remarks and is meant to reassure Europeans that, unlike George Bush, Obama is willing to engage with them.
Perhaps his speech will have that effect. But it may also expose his appearance as nothing more than a campaign photo-op, transforming an extraordinary symbol of the German nation into a mere political prop. And with his words falling far short of those spoken by more inspirational predecessors, Berliners may in the end come to the same realization about Obama as Lloyd Bentsen did about Dan Quayle in their 1988 vice-presidential debate: “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”