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Obama in Berlin: Finding the Right Tone


Let's start with the good news: Barack Obama's Berlin speech was a masterful example of near-perfect pitch. Under pressure to address the oft-competing concerns of multiple audiences, the Senator shone. The speech amply repays close analysis - and most people who heard it were quietly, happily impressed.

The bad news is not so bad, for it was entirely predictable: few media descriptions of the speech or its reception got it right. Tone and nuance are always hard to convey in short space. But the mutual misunderstanding that plagued both U.S. and European coverage of Obama's trip turned on something more interesting: each continent's relation to irony. If American media (with the notable exception of Jon Stewart & Co.) can be slow to appreciate irony, Europeans can have trouble appreciating earnestness.

Both before and after Obama's speech the German press, in particular, ran headlines that ran from irony to sarcasm: "Germany meets the Superstar!" blazed Der Spiegel in neon. "Redeemer or Seducer?" asked the rival Der Stern, leaving no room for other options. "Prince America Embraces Berlin" screamed the low-brow BZ. Under the headline "Short-Term Relationship", Joe Joffe derided German "infatuation" for the Senator in The New Republic. And another senior German editor told BBC cameras that "While the German media has finally gathered he isn't Jesus Christ, the realization has yet to reach the ordinary German citizen." Finally? When the March Spiegel cover featured Obama, the headline read "The Messiah Factor." Need one add that this headline, too, was tongue in cheek?

Nor were such references confined to the German press. Former British foreign minister Malcolm Rifkind announced that "there won't be too many stars in European eyes" about Obama. Scotland on Sunday proclaimed that Obama was "riding a tsunami of media-driven hysteria." London's Daily Mail offered an article titled "The Obamessiah": "And verily he came among us...Obamania has spread with the speed of a Biblical plague across America, and it was finally Britain's turn." The Times of London amused itself with a full-length article describing Obama's tour in a parody of Biblical language that began like this: "And it came to pass, in the eighth year of the reign of the evil Bush the Younger (The Ignorant), when the whole land from the Arabian desert to the shores of the Great Lakes had been laid barren, that a Child appeared in the wilderness." After the tedium of the savior metaphor, it was almost a relief when the press varied their theme and referred to him simply as popstar.

Such headlines seemed part of a contest to determine which paper could outdo the other in throwing cold water - not on Obama himself, but on the enthusiasm for the world-changing hopes he inspires. This was largely unnoticed in the American media, which reported on European commentary as if it were meant to be taken straight. The Wall Street Journal spoke of the "romantic (albeit brief) European fling" of the "adulating Berlin crowd." Maureen Dowd reported that Obama had been "christened the Redeemer," and countless others described Europeans as "gushing" and "swooning." John McCain couldn't have wished for more. The Dallas Morning News offered a mild taste of the xenophobia to come: "The Obama speech no doubt played well in Berlin -but what about Peoria? After all, Mr. Obama is running to be president of the United States, not king of the world." In the LA Times, John Bolton offered a more aggressive version: Obama's success in the Tiergarten showed he was not just from another place but "from another planet." From there it was one short step to the brutal Republican National Committee ad, which trolled the Tiergarten for just those young Germans whose pro-Obama comments might arouse American ire.

It was clear all along that Republicans would work hard at spinning Obama's trip. If the trip were a failure, he'd be insufficiently diplomatic; if it were a success, he'd be the foreigners' candidate. Watched closely, even the latest Republican ad purporting to promote Berliners' Obama shows that neither spin approaches the truth. The young Germans in the film looked chosen for their combination of ignorance, condescension, and bad English, but for all that they're unattractive, none of them were gushing. However silly their reasons for voicing support for Obama might be, the frenzied adoration portrayed by the media cannot be seen even in the hapless German youth picked out of the crowd to scare off American voters. Like most of the 200,000 listeners, they thought Obama did well - as did the German government, which confined itself to the quiet remark that Obama's speech was "a positive signal." Those whooping it up loudest were American expats, come from all corners of Europe to cheer the man who, they hope, will make them glad again, after eight long years, to be U.S. citizens abroad.

Obama was met with respect, not with swoons. So why does the media continue promoting the tired story that Europeans received him as messiah? Surely the reasons are banal: the search for catchy headlines, the pressure of tight filing deadlines, tin ears for irony, misunderstanding cultural cues. But whether or not it's intended to do so, this line supports key points in the Republican script: the allegation that Obama is arrogant (as if the alleged messianic reception were somehow his doing) and the suggestion that Obama is somehow foreign - not really one of us.

In fact, few politicians in recent memory have been so profoundly American, and Obama's Berlin speech made that clear. That speech was neither "the end of history on acid" (David Brooks) nor googoo globaloney (Thomas Frank) but a powerful use of time and place to make serious claims. Those claims were missed by those who missed the context, for the Senator and his speechwriters clearly worked hard to craft a speech that was attuned to the history of the location, yet uniquely American in spirit.

The craft is even more impressive against the background of the long German quarrel over which historic location should be used for Obama's speech. But even without knowing the details, the speech stands on its own. While listeners held their breaths waiting for the Senator to come up with a few words of German that would outdo Kennedy, he did something far more original. He studied the most famous speech of Ernst Reuter, Berlin's mayor during the airlift that occurred when the city was the frontline of the Cold War. "People of the world - look at Berlin!" may sound stilted to hearers who missed the quotation, but in fact it was a brilliant way of recalling Berlin's proudest moments, and giving them an American twist. Reuter used the words as a cry for help, reminding the people of the world not to abandon Berlin to the Soviet blockade. (The sleaziest part of the sleazy RNC ad was to use Obama's clear quotation - "The people of Berlin have spoken" - as if it were written by Obama in 2008, not Reuter in 1948.) Obama used the words to remind Berliners, and the world, that Berlin is a city where things that seem barely possible one day may be realized the next. "The odds were stacked against success," he reminded, for the size of the Soviet army, the desire to avoid another major war, and the winter weather all combined to make the hope that Berlin could hold out seem as unrealistic as the idea that the Wall which later divided the two halves of the city might be torn down. When Reagan called for that in 1987, most Europeans were embarrassed, for they saw his speech as an instance of American naivete. In moving from the airlift to the wall, Obama's speech recalled the times when Americans and Europeans stood together against threats to common ideals. But far more challenging was the very American reminder that with hope, hard work, and determination, realities that looked fixed can be overcome.

Referencing the Berlin wall was no naive metaphor. (Nor was the speech one that anyone could have given. The implicit references to Reagan were a properly bipartisan nod. But without naming any Republican in particular, Obama not only recalled the heroic moments of the Cold War; he reminded listeners that it was over, and that Russia is no longer our enemy.) A world without nuclear weapons, a planet our children can thrive in, a world in which rich and poor countries are not fundamentally divided -- these may sound like platitudes, for at the moment they look as utopian as ... well, a world where Europe isn't divided by a wall. When I first came to Berlin in the 80s, that piece of concrete was as much a part of reality as the weather, and nobody but an American really thought it could be changed.

Obama gave his hearers hope, not hysteria -- the hope for an America that could not only work with European nations, but even be a model for them. For European irony is often little more than a defense against disappointment; few remain entirely unmoved by American dreams. But they have watched them turn into nightmare once too often. And though many were honest enough to say they wish they had a politician like Obama, our enthusiasm can make them uneasy.

"You must have been at the speech," said my warm-hearted Berlin dentist a few days later. "But -- " he looked askance, "You didn't, ahhh, cheer?" I assured him that I did. I cheered. I clapped. I hollered "Yes we can!" as I've done since the beginning of the campaign. I've knocked on doors and given small donations. I've had tears in my eyes watching campaign videos from St. Paul, South Carolina, the Ebenezer Baptist Church -- all the very American reactions many in Berlin find hard to imagine in a reasonable middle-aged woman. I've tried to explain to friends and colleagues that I haven't lost my senses; America has begun to come to hers. Obama's speech last week went a long way to convincing them that it just might be true.