Thursday, July 24, 2008

Obama Wants to Be A Jelly Doughnut

It is extremely premature to say that, twenty years from now, anyone will remember what Barack Obama said today in Berlin, or, indeed, that anyone will remember that he spoke today in Berlin at all.

What counts – and what makes exceptional rhetoric last beyond the echoes it makes as it rebounds – is what happens because of or despite of the rhetoric offered. To put it another way, Abraham Lincoln (in his Gettysburg Address) said: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.” (Nicolay transcript) Lincoln’s statement is ironic in that his speech is one of the most memorable ever delivered in American politics. But it’s the context of the speech – dedication of a graveyard where were interred soldiers who fought in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War (not to forget the Civil War itself) is what makes the speech memorable.

To take another example:

“There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev -- Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Had the Berlin Wall not fallen two years after Ronald Reagan gave this speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in 1987, Reagan’s speech would have been just another speech, a footnote in history, forgotten because it did not have context with the events surrounding it, despite its rhetorical ring.

To take another example:

“Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great Continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades. All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’”

Kennedy’s Berlin speech is also a remarkable example of powerful rhetoric. But again, taken in context – delivered in a city, in a nation, only recently divided by a physical barrier and in a world that would see extraordinary tension rise becasue of these physical and political barriers – his speech is, and remains, meaningful.

Let us consider the context of Obama’s speech: The United States has increasingly alienated itself from Europe, indeed, some say, from much of the world. Obama’s rhetoric is full of hope, to use an overused word. He said today:

“People of the world, look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one. The fall of the Berlin Wall brought new hope. But that very closeness has given rise to new dangers, dangers that cannot be contained within the borders of a country or by the distance of an ocean. We cannot afford to be divided. No one nation, no matter how large or powerful, can defeat such challenges alone. None of us can deny these threats or escape responsibility in meeting them.”

But for this speech to be remembered twenty years from now, the context of world events will have to catch up with it.

Those keen on the beatification of Barack Obama will have to wait for history (and, indeed, the results of the November election) before they can chalk up his speech as one for the history books. His rhetoric and ideals are admirable; they hark back to the themes and memes of unity and freedom that Reagan, and John F. Kennedy before him, uttered at the Brandenburg Gate. But until events catch up with the rhetoric, Obama’s speech will remain historically unremarkable.

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