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.