The press was all anticipation. Something big was going to happen at the Brandenburg Gate. President Obama was coming there to deliver a speech. It would be compared with that immortal address of the young John F. Kennedy on that very site fifty years ago. Here’s a sample of the media buzz:
Speaking ahead of Obama’s address, Gerber suggested the president would struggle to captivate and inspire in the same way Kennedy did 50 years ago this month.”Germans will be interested in what Obama has to say, but his speech should not be compared to Kennedy’s remarks because those were different times,” he added. “For Berliners, the visit of an American president will be no less than the meeting of an old friend.”
President Obama had a hard act to follow: President Obama. After all, when he spoke at Normandy several years ago, Newsweek‘s Evan Thomas could hardly contain himself. “He hovers over the nations like a sort of god,” Thomas exhaled. Mr. Thomas was hard put, as we are, to recall what this hovering sort of god actually said at Normandy, but it was historic, to be sure.
With all that buildup, we were led to reread President Kennedy’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate. It’s especially poignant to read the young Democrat’s brave words from June 26, 1963 because we know it was the last time he would go to Germany — West Germany as it was known then.
We can hardly listen to JFK and his staccato delivery of his great “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech without a twinge of regret. That was how a president of this Great Republic ought to sound. That was a clarion call to defend freedom in its hour of maximum danger. Or dane-jah, as our young Boston president put it.
Listen as he inserts a clever joke. After his line in German — Ich bin ein Berliner (“I am a Berliner”), President Kennedy thanks his interpreter for translating his German into German. That was so like him. Standing at the spot where East and West faced each other with tanks and loaded rifles, he makes a lighthearted joke.
With one more exquisitely ironic line — repeated and repeated, and once in German — Kennedy taunts the Communists. Anyone who wants to compare the two systems: Let them come to Berlin. Lass sie nach Berlin kommen!
The huge crowd roared its approval. Of course, it would be hard for anyone to match President Kennedy in that time, in that place.
Yet Ronald Reagan did. In 1987, President Reagan returned to the Brandenburg Gate and challenged General Secretary Gorbachev. “Mr. Gorbachev: Tear down this wall!”
Mr. Reagan even went further. He told the story of the East German Communist radio tower built to overshadow all the church steeples. It had a defect, however. The authorities had tried to etch it out, sandblast it, paint it over. But President Reagan said: “When the sun strikes the globe on that tower, it reflects the Sign of the Cross.”
Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy. Twenty-six years ago, Ronald Reagan. This year, Barack Obama.
What did he say? He went to this famous place and uttered which words? Well, they were Lincolnesque in this sense: The world will little note nor long remember what he said there. In fact, we have already forgotten them. Chances are, President Obama himself cannot remember what he said there.
His collected speeches are in danger of being shelved while he is still in office. The binding would read: Presidential Addresses to the People. Or, for short, P.A.P.
This is not a mere partisan criticism. We hail the liberal Democrat Kennedy and the conservative Republican Reagan. And we readily admit, we cannot recall a single memorable line from either John McCain or Mitt Romney.
Where are today’s great presidential speeches? Where have they all gone? MSNBC’s Chris Matthews tried to excuse Mr. Obama’s flat Berlin performance by saying the sun was glaring and he couldn’t read his teleprompter. Chris ought to remember that the sun was even more intense on the day after a blizzard in January, 1961, when John F. Kennedy took the oath as president. Still, Kennedy, hatless and wearing his mourning coat in 20-degree weather, delivered an unforgettable Inaugural Address.
We reread President Kennedy’s address and we come upon this short line: “a part of the main.” It’s from John Donne’s great poem “No Man is an Island.” It was Kennedy’s way of assuring Berliners they would not be abandoned. It shows that Kennedy and his speechwriters were literate men.
Why can’t we have this again?
Ken Blackwell and Bob Morrison are senior fellows at the Family Research Council,in Washington, D.C.