President Obama’s speech today, June 19, at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin inevitably invites comparisons with the speech given by President Ronald Reagan on June 12, 1987. Surely, no one in this publicity savvy White House could have missed that point.
The backdrop of the famous monument, the topic, the cheering crowds of Berliners, were all tailor-made for presidential legacy building. It has to be said, though, that, as much as the Germans adore Obama, in substance the speech far from reached the gravitas and drama of Reagan’s famous line, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
As Reagan stood in Berlin 26 years ago, the city was an island of freedom in an ocean of Communist oppression. Calmly and firmly, he demanded that the Soviet leader allow the people of Berlin, and all of Germany, to choose their own fate, their own political leadership.
For an American President to make such a bold and direct appeal was unheard of at the time, far too confrontational for a foreign policy establishment that had operated on a policy of containment and accommodation with the Soviet Union for decades. When the Wall actually fell in 1989, and as East Berliners exuberantly streamed into the West, it was in no small part due to Reagan’s refusal to accept their oppression as inevitable.
Today, President Obama gave a slight nod—too slight—to President Reagan and to President Kennedy, who gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech there in 1963. Stating that “I am not the first American President to come to this gate,” Obama proclaimed that “I am proud to stand on its Eastern side to pay tribute to the past.” Well, yes . . . and? Obama could—literally—not have stood where he did today, had his predecessors not opposed the Communist East German government.
Reagan’s speech was a specific tribute to West Germany’s post-war economic miracle and to the desire for political freedom that helped West Germans overcome the legacy of Nazi Germany and the Communist threat from the East. It contained the promise that the East Germans would, too, be able to do so in a united Germany.
President Obama, by contrast, used only the first third of the speech to talk about Germany, covering thousands of years of development, culture, and philosophy in a bit of potted history. In the course of this race through the ages, the President did manage to pay tribute to the Berlin Airlift and the famous Berlin “candy bomber” Gail Halvorson, who was on the stage with Obama. (Better late than never, one supposes. When the veterans of the airlift celebrated the 60th anniversary of the event in Berlin in 2009, no one in the Obama White House was even remotely interested in participating, and in the end, Vice President Biden was persuaded to address the airlift heroes by video link-up.)
The remainder of Obama’s speech was essentially the President’s stump campaign speech, touching on global warning, arms reduction with the Russians, and closing Guantanamo Bay. These, it might be noted, are not issues that will serve to strengthen the cause of freedom—quite the opposite.