I rather suspect Sen. Barack Obama is welcoming former Gov. Jesse Ventura’s reported plans to run against Al Franken and Sen. Norm Coleman for the latter’s seat. After all, once “The Mind” starts making the rounds of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, the attention of the American public will be diverted not only from the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s latest faux pas regarding the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, but also from the latest example of Obama’s tendency to overreach himself in spectacular fashion.
It’s one thing for the gentleman from Illinois to plan to move his acceptance speech from the 22,000-capacity Pepsi Center in Denver, where he (presumably) will be nominated at the end of August, to 75,000-seat Invesco Stadium at Mile High, home of the NFL’s Broncos, much as John F. Kennedy, after being chosen by his party in the Los Angeles Sports Arena, moved his acceptance speech to Memorial Coliseum. After all, his soaring oratory usually works better when his audience is bigger, and having the Rockies for a background doesn’t hurt.
But it’s quite another thing when Obama, moving into his “statesman” mode, decides to lead off a visit to Germany, France and Britain later this month with an speech on July 24 in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.
The Gate, built in the 1790s by order of Prussian Emperor Frederick William I, has been the symbol of German unity since 1870. In the 1930s, no Nazi parade in the city was complete without a procession through the Gate, as shown in this photo of Adolf Hitler riding through it on the way to the 1936 Olympics opening ceremony.
But after 1945, and especially after the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Gate gained a greater significance. The western border of the Soviet zone of occupation in the city (and of Communist-controlled East Berlin) ran just a few feet in front of the gate, and thus concrete and barbed wire went up, barring West Berliners from access to the national landmark. This remained the case for 28 long years.
On June 26, 1963 – just under 45 years and a month before the date of Obama’s proposed speech – President Kennedy visited the area in front of the Gate (the East German authorities chose to hang black cloth banners between the pillars to obscure his view of their side of the city), then traveled to Schoneberg Rathaus, Berlin’s city hall. There, before a massive crowd that filled Rudolph Wilde Platz (renamed John F. Kennedy Platz after his assassination), the president spoke from the Rathaus’ balcony. His address, one of the finest of his career, ended with words that have never lost their resonance: “Ich bin ein Berliner!” (The question of whether some in the audience thought he was saying he was the German pastry of that name is still debated.)
Just under 24 years later on June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan visited Berlin and spoke directly in front of the Gate and the Wall. Before another enormous crowd he issued the challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that, stunningly, was fulfilled just 29 months later: “Tear down this wall!”
But Obama’s hope to follow in the footsteps of JFK and the Gipper is being frustrated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has diplomatically, but unmistakably, made it known that in her view speeches at that hallowed monument of Cold War triumph and German nationhood are the province of leaders of nations, where politicians from overseas are concerned, not political candidates, whether or not they represent a unit within a nation as Obama represents Illinois. It’s hard to tell whether she can make that stick; Obama probably has a more enthusiastic following in Germany than any other European country, and in that land the media long since has anointed him der schwarzer Kennedy. But whether or not he does speak at the Brandenburg Gate, you have to wonder what he’s got up his sleeve for his birthday on August 4 – Scarlett Johannson singing “Happy Birthday” at Madison Square Garden, perhaps? (Assuming Michelle would permit it?)