Barack Obama in Berlin: One day’s diary in the city

Barack Obama has come and gone. Here in Berlin, the dust has settled, the public transportation is back running normally and today, the day after Obama’s history-making, if not perhaps history-defining, speech, the German media all seem to conclude the same thing: Was that it?

Consider today’s Web version of the weekly Die Zeit, which concludes:

“There was the hope for this one great sentence that we would still quote in 40 years” — read: like Kennedy and Reagan — “that would make the speech historical. Nobody really heard this sentence.”

O.K., fine. It was like that.

But it was a hell of a spectacle. I kept a diary of the day.

I publish it here.

Friday, 10:15 a.m. Central European Time (4:15 a.m. EST)

Predictably, when I sit down to peruse the German papers this morning, Obama is everywhere. The irresponsible tabloid Bild even runs a front page feature of the German politicians that most look like Obama. Other highlights:

  • “Barack is here!” screams Bild. “His day in Berlin in a live ticker!”
  • The daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung calls Obama a “longed-for savior.”
  • “Column for victory,” Berlin’s Tagesspiegel says in the headline of its lead story, a cheeky attempt at prediction masked as a reference to where Obama is to speak, at Berlin’s Victory Column

Anyway, I’m sure there might be concern about whether this ostensible travel blog is about to veer off into a political one. Let me say I have only a passing interest in what Obama has to say today, since I figure it won’t be much.

I’m more interested, culturally, in how Berliners are going to mark this day. Will it be a speech, or a party? Obama is wildly popular here, almost like a — jeez, I was going to say rock star, but that’s so overused.

Here’s something better: He’s like Michael Ballack, the captain of the German national soccer team. Ballack’s pretty huge and he almost led his team to the European Championship last month, which, come to think of it, is the last time there’s been this air of anticipation around Berlin.

And, hey: Ballack. Barak. Not bad, huh?

Maybe there’ll be some cultural insights today, maybe not. But look at this way: If you were a tourist in Berlin today, you’d probably wander down and see what all of the fuss was about, right?
1:00 p.m. CET

I arrive on scene (well, in the area, near the Brandenburg Gate), six hours before the Obama event, and the first person I meet is a Finnish tourist! So, already this diary is justified.

His name is Pertti Elonen. He’s 50. He’s here on vacation.

He doesn’t seem to be buying too much into the Obama hype. Really, he says, stick any liberal on the stage, give him a mike and people will come out to listen.

“For Europeans, we are more for anyone liberal,” he says. “To an extent, they would feel like this about any Democrat. I would have come here anyway, whoever the Democratic candidate.”

1:20 p.m. CET

Obama got into a bit of a dust-up with German officials when he first wanted to give his speech at the Brandenburg Gate, where I now stand.

This is hallowed ground in Berlin.

This is where Ronald Reagan demanded that the Soviet Union “tear down” the Berlin Wall.

Berliners think pretty highly of speeches from U.S. presidents. There’s been a lot on that Reagan speech here this week. Ditto John F. Kennedy’s famous Ich bin ein Berliner” speech delivered less than six months before his assassination.

Obama,– neither the president nor officially the Democratic Party nominee — is clearly hoping to tap into this nostalgia.

However, some commentators and politicians here saw Obama’s initial request to speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate as another kind of audacity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to allow it.

But I think Team Obama got the last laugh, symbolism-wise.

He’s speaking at the Siegessaeule, or “Victory Column,” an imposing monument that looks down the long Avenue of June 17th toward the Brandenburg Gate. It sits at a massive traffic circle nicknamed in German the “Grossen Stern.

The Great Star.

1:30 p.m. CET

And what of that famous Kennedy speech in 1963, anyway?

Since there will be so many references to it today, it’s interesting to note that while Germans love the intent of what Kennedy had to say, they gently mock what he actually said.

Ich bin ein Berliner.”

“I am a doughnut.”

When Kennedy thought he was pledging allegiance to Berliners, he was really praising a jelly doughnut unique to Berlin – a Berliner.

Ich bin Berliner” would have been more on the mark.

2:10 p.m. CET

It’s funny, where there’s a crowd….

And there’s a huge crowd outside the venerable Hotel Adlon, on Pariser Platz, where Obama is reportedly inside conducting “talks.” Most have gathered here on the rumor that this is where he’ll speak. There’s some question about whether he’s really inside, or yet to arrive.

“I don’t know what direction he’ll be coming in,” says an Irish tourist. “Probably he’ll fall from the sky.”

2:30 p.m. CET

I’ve arrived on the scene. The real scene, the middle of the Avenue of June 17th. And it’s just like I thought it would be: Berliners are treating this like a sporting event.

Flash back almost one month to the day, when this same street — transformed at the time into the so-called “fan mile” — was filled with 500,000 people for the finals of the European Championships, in which Germany lost to Spain.

This looks like the same setup: Large screen television monitors. Bratwurst stands. Beer stands. The air redolent with smoke and grilled meat.

2:40 p.m. CET

Opposition! I was wondering about this.

I meat Natalie, from Ukraine, who is handing out fliers for P.U.M.A. (Political Unity My Ass). It’s a pro-Hillary group that doesn’t want to say it’s a pro-Hillary group, even though its main beef is that its members feel Hillary’s name will not be put to delegates at next month’s National Democratic Convention.

She gets into a funny squabble with an American man who says his name is Charles. He’s a little miffed that anyone from Ukraine has something to say about U.S. politics.

N: You have to know what Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi are doing. Who has a gun up your ass!

C: If you’re Ukrainian, why do you care?

N: You have to think fir –

C: Why do you care?

N: We need a new financial system!

C: Are you a citizen of the United States?

N: We need a new financial –

C: You can’t even vote!

N: You can’t even think!

3 p.m. CET

I vow only to talk to Germans from here on out.

I quickly meet Ellie Spahl, 19. She’s here with her friend, Astrid Langer, also 19. Ellie does all of the talking. I ask her why she’s here.

“We want to listen to what Obama has to say. We want to make our own picture of him. Up until now we haven’t been able to make our own picture.”

It’s been a media picture. It’s looked a little bit like this.

3:55 p.m. CET

The closer you get to the Victory Column, the more Americans descend on you and ask you whether you’ve registered to vote. They insist they don’t care for who.

Even now, with the “doors” opening a little early, the security line to get into the first section — i.e. closest to the stage — is so long I decide to abandon it and watch on one of the screens, with the commoners (or at least with those who want to be a little bit closer to the beer stands).

4:05 p.m. CET

One of the things that E
llie Spahl told me was that German politicians don’t seem as human as Obama.

I can see that: German pols are a somber lot. Even the head of state, Angela Merkel, who enjoys great approval ratings, is not known to be a ball of laughs.

I meet Brick Mueller, 36, an environmental activist passing out tee-shirts. He agrees.

“One difference between Obama and German politicians is that we don’t have that charismatic leader.” Merkel “is pretty boring. She’s not charismatic. There’s a hunger here for a little charisma.”

4:20 p.m. CET

I meet Dirk Mirow. He’s 41. He’s the president of a university in Kiel, on the Baltic Sea. He holds a sign that says “Obama for Kanzler.” Kanzler means Chancellor. He too says he wishes a little Obama-mania was injected into the staid German political system.

“That’s what’s missing in German politics. It would be good…hey, Obama is in Berlin, he can take the chancellor’s office.”

4:55 p.m. CET

I notice that security staff are hassling another P.U.M.A activist. His name is Florian, 24.

They tell him he cannot pass out his leaflets. When I talk to him, he says I cannot pass security or any event staff holding one of the leaflets. They will make me surrender it.

I ask him for one, and decide to try.

5:15 p.m. CET

Indeed, I fail, at the first gate.

Political banners are also prohibited. Some make it through.

6:15 p.m. CET

I meat Torsten Spoeri, 41, dressed in a sharp gray pinstripe suit and purple tie. He is a sales manager for Paulander beer, in Munich.

Why is he here?

“Well, partly because one of my friends has this beer stand.”

We were talking at one end of it.

“But I’m really interested. I was going to make a bet that Hillary was going to make it. But she didn’t.”

And Obama?

“I hear he’s very charismatic, so I’m here to check it out myself.”

6:45 p.m. CET

I hear that from many: They’re drawn here not so much for outright political activism, but to see what all the hype is about.

7:00 p.m. CET

Waiting for Obama now, and the crowd has closed in. The opening acts — a reggae band and a rock band — have cleared the stage.

On the TV monitor I see the overhead of the entire avenue. It looks pretty wall-to-wall, in terms of people. The crowd does thin out, but way behind me.

I think this: No matter who you support in this election, even a die hard McCain camper would have to acknowledge the sheer brilliance of whoever thought this appearance up. Any minute now, Obama will take the stage, address what looks to be hundreds of thousands, the sun is setting and the trees of the Tiergarten are aflame with those last rays, and at the top of the Victory Column, Victory herself is a rufus gold, only the way she can be when the sun is out at this time of day.

7:20 p.m. CET

Obama takes the stage.

7:48 p.m. CET

Obama leaves the stage.

Several around me utter: “Ein bisschen zu kurz.”

A little too short.

7:50 p.m. CET

O.K., all that golden stuff above is done. All window dressing? Perhaps.

But the Germans responded positively all the same. They wanted Obama to speak more.

But not many were surprised by him. And where was that Kennedy-esque or Reagan-esque line?

Still, Obama scored on topics Germans have traditionally felt strongly about: calls for more environmentalism, less nuclear weapons and an end to the Iraq war.

And I don’t think it matters who you support in the election, kudos to Obama’s speech writer for penning a passage that won’t go down in the history books, but made a smart — and resonant, at least here — reference to Reagan’s famous speech.

“The greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another. The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes . . . Christian and Muslim and Jews cannot stand. These are now the walls we must tear down.”

8:05 p.m. CET

I meet a man named only, apparently, Jodock, 50, and a woman named Andrea Benkendorff, 39.

I think they are married. They are not.

Jodock says, “The speech was long enough.” He was enthralled by the history of the event. Imagine some American candidate coming here to give a stump speech (many Germans thought of it like this)?

“We are not allowed to elect him, but we would like to elect him,” he says.

Andrea is not as convinced. “He didn’t say really how he was going to achieve anything.”

8:30 p.m. CET

I bump into a colleague of mine, named Bob.

He says he was talking to someone earlier who described the whole event pretty simply.

“Obama could have come out and stood on his head, and it would not have mattered.”