It´s not exactly surprising to see present-day candidates channel JFK and Ronald Reagan in an attempt to appeal to the American people. Both former presidents, after all, possessed an uncommon blend of boldness, leadership and depth of vision that sealed their place in history as transformative American presidents. But the Obama campaign has taken it to a new level, its temerity enough to make even a daredevil flinch.
Next week, Sen. Barack Obama will visit Germany. If he has his way, the senator will turn the capital of Berlin into his own personal campaign prop. His goal is to become enmeshed in the legacies of the two former presidents by delivering a lofty speech on transatlantic affairs in the highly symbolic quarters of West Berlin. Mr. Obama´s staff has reportedly looked to stage Mr. Obama´s speech at the Berlin city hall, where Kennedy delivered his legendary “I am a Berliner” speech in June 1963, or at the Brandenburg Gate, where Mr. Reagan in June 1987 challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
Talk of Mr. Obama´s intentions has already aroused the ire of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who reacted with “bewilderment,” according to her spokesman. Who could blame her? Mrs. Merkel has worked in good faith to mend German-American relations over the past few years. A choreographed and heavily attended outdoor speech at the Brandenburg Gate would create the appearance of a German endorsement of Mr. Obama´s candidacy. For a candidate claiming the moral high ground on foreign relations, Mr. Obama´s inexperience seems to have gotten the better of him.
Most disturbing is the presumptuousness with which the Obama campaign plans to assume the mantle of JFK and Mr. Reagan. In all likelihood, Mr. Obama will give a mea culpa on behalf of the American people for seven-and-a-half cruel years of Bush unilateralism. Hopefully, he can find a moment to press Germany and other NATO allies to step up their insufficient contributions to the war in Afghanistan. Last time I checked, Islamic terrorism poses an equally grave threat to Europe.
But either way, Senator Obama is no Kennedy or Reagan. Consider the Berlin speeches the two former presidents — sitting heads of state at the time, of course — delivered.
JFK´s 1963 speech provided a much-needed morale boost to the citizens of the enclave of West Berlin. West Berliners at the time felt suffocated after the Soviet Union erected a wall to block East Berliners from defecting. The Soviets guarded their side of the wall with machine guns, a perpetual reminder of the tyranny Kennedy so fervently believed needed to be defeated. Here´s an excerpt from the speech: “There are many people in the world who really don´t understand, or say they don´t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin.” Today this would be viewed by Obama´s allies on the far left as the kind of unenlightened “cowboy diplomacy” that leads to war. Kennedy and Reagan knew differently: Peace came from a position of strength.
Speaking at the Brandenburg Gate 21 years ago, Reagan defied the warnings of his advisers and the State Department by inserting the “Tear down this wall” line. It was, to borrow from JFK, a profile in political courage.
Obama may be charismatic and polished, but his politics are hardly the radical departure he claims to represent. His brief legislative record in Illinois and the U.S. Senate suggests a doctrinaire liberal. And though he recently has lunged to the center, most notably on guns, NAFTA, Iraq and wiretapping, Obama is conspicuously short on bold ideas that challenge his party´s orthodoxy or the status quo — in other words, ideas that entail political risk.
Contrast that with JFK´s calls for huge income tax cuts and his challenge for Americans to reach the moon in less than 10 years; Reagan´s willingness to withstand withering criticism of his desperately-needed supply-side economic vision; and Reagan´s steady determination to wear down the Soviets through heavy defense spending, despite taunts equating his prized Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) with “Star Wars.”
JFK and Reagan changed the course of history with their respective speeches in West Berlin. They advanced the cause of freedom at ground zero of the Cold War. An Obama campaign speech in Berlin would merely be a way to score political points on the cheap. As he dresses himself in the garb of JFK and Reagan, the American people are too smart to take the bait.
Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, serves as chief deputy whip.
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