For a brief moment last week, The Scrapbook felt a twinge of compassion for President Obama. The setting was Berlin. Readers will remember the extraordinary (and extraordinarily peculiar) sight in 2008 of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama speaking to a throng of 200,000 worshipful Berliners in the Tiergarten. No American candidate had ever before campaigned in a foreign country—especially one where spectacles of mass enthusiasm revive instructive memories. But Barack Obama was declared historic even before he had gained his party’s nomination, and that huge rally at the foot of Berlin’s Victory Column was just more proof.
What a difference a half-decade makes! Escaping from a G-8 summit in Northern Ireland largely memorable for the images of Obama and Vladimir Putin scowling at one another, the president sought to salvage his journey with a triumphant return to Berlin to mark the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” address. But, alas! Berlin seemed to greet its adoptive son with the same enthusiasm as Putin: The crowd that listened to Obama preach about intolerance, global warming, and nuclear weapons amounted to a listless 4,500, by invitation only. Even his faithful acolyte Chris Matthews complained on MSNBC that Obama’s limp performance was caused by glare from the sun.
In fact, of course, President Obama was the victim of a common misstep in political theater: trying to re-create something unique. When Kennedy spoke in Berlin in 1963 the Wall was less than two years old, and there was lingering uncertainty about his administration’s commitment to West Germany. When Ronald Reagan spoke at the same site a quarter-century later, his defiant words (“tear down this wall!”) were hurled at a barrier, and a Soviet empire, still very much in evidence. By the time Bill Clinton made the trek in 1994, however, the Soviet Union was history, Germany was unified, and you had to go to a museum to see fragments of the Berlin Wall.
Which is why The Scrapbook felt some fleeting pity for Obama last week: There he was, orating and perspiring in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate—and no magic in evidence. It reminded us of poor Jimmy Carter’s televised “fireside chat” about energy in 1977. Carter knew that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats had been immensely popular on radio, and so he dressed himself in an energy-efficient cardigan sweater while the camera pulled back, as he spoke, to depict a White House fireplace. Of course, FDR’s “fireside chats” referred to his audience, the people listening to their president beside the fireplace in their parlors, not the White House chimney.
Jimmy Carter couldn’t impersonate Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Barack Obama, to coin a phrase, is no Jack Kennedy.
Dallas President Obama is not known for his graciousness. But the occasion—the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum—called for kind words about his predecessor in the White House. So he said that if immigration reform passes Congress this year, “it will be in large part thanks to all the hard work of the president, George W. Bush.” Bush had “restarted” the drive to overhaul our immigration system seven years ago, Obama said.
On Wednesday night, former president Bill Clinton assured us that nobody could have managed the Great Recession better than Barack Obama. He compared Obama’s tenure to the period between 1993 and 1996, when the economy was recovering but people were not yet feeling it. He assured us that, soon enough, we will feel this recovery.
In happier times, the firm had been celebrated as a harbinger of the future. The political connections it enjoyed were the fruit not only of well-placed contributions but of a self-imposed ideological mission: It was going to deliver cheap energy in amazing ways. Top executives had dismissed accounting irregularities. The normal rules, it was said, did not apply.
Whether he wins the nomination or not, Rick Perry’s August charge into the top echelon of GOP presidential hopefuls marks at least this turning point: In national Republican politics, Texas is the new California.
Right after Easter, the irrepressible evangelical-left activist Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine announced a new “spiritual battle” against cuts to sacred federal programs in the 2012 budget. Enlisting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the Salvation Army, Wallis proclaimed their “Circle of Protection” around federal poverty programs.
Former President George W. Bush recently gave a speech before a business group meeting in Houston, Texas. In the speech, he explained how he came to endorse bailouts for financial companies, auto companies, etc., toward the end of his term. He said that his personal inclination was to avoid bailouts – that if people or companies do imprudent things they need to suffer the consequences – including bankruptcy. He felt our system depended on that.