Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Obama in Berlin

If Barack Obama loses his bid to become President of the United States, he can trace the beginning of his demise to his campaign's boneheaded idea to speak in Berlin. While on the surface it might seem to offer a resounding image of popularity and approval, the historical memory it provokes and the powerful and sinister images it recalls to living memory is an ominous reminder of events that continue to resonate among older Americans.


The spirited young Obama people must have huddled around the planning table blinded with the brilliance of the idea that their candidate's speaking in Berlin would trigger memories of President's Kennedy's stirring remark that gave hope to the beleaguered people of that surrounded city, "Ich bin ein Berliner," and would offer the double reminder of Ronald Reagan's "Tear down that wall" speech a few years later.


They must have reveled in the creativity of such a ploy that, they believed, would anoint Obama to be the heir apparent to such illustrious forebears. Unfortunately, the decision and its aftermath suggests that the vaunted brain power of Obama's inner circle is suffering from severe limitations of historical memory. The context of the Kennedy and Reagan eras was totally different. The battle then was between freedom and repression. We were in a very different time, in a war that literally had split Europe in half, and we were standing with allies against a tyrannical and nuclear armed state with serious designs on us and our European allies. Kennedy and Reagan were the cheerleaders for the good guys.

What Obama did, first in choosing to make his speech on the site of one of the principal monuments to German nationalism, and secondly in declaring that "This is our moment," against the background of a cheering and adoring crowd provoked memories of a German leader who through oratory and charisma stirred similar emotions and instilled the belief that he was the anointed one, the man of the moment whose magic would lead his people into a paradise of wealth and privilege over which they were destined to rule for a thousand years.


While such a comparison is odious in its implications and subjects a fine, idealistic, decent and eloquent man to be in sync with a monster, it suggests that his campaign strategists subjected him to a fatally flawed mission that forgot or overlooked or dismissed the power of historical memory. We know, of course, that the Germany of today is not the Germany of the thirties and forties, far from it. But long term memories are, as neurologists will attest, the last of the brain's complex functions to deteriorate.

What the Obama people failed to consider was that there are millions of people among the American voting public that are still haunted by memories of World War II when Americans considered Nazi Germany the most hated country on earth.

There were nearly 300,000 battle deaths in that war and nearly 700,000 wounded. Many of today's nearly forty million people over 65 lost grandfathers or fathers in that ghastly war or lived with wounded or disabled relatives. There are still more than three million of living American veteran survivors of that war and more than four million people 85 or over, voters all, who bear intimate memories of those times.


Consider too the millions who have seen Leni Riefenstahl's films depicting mesmerized sycophants of the Fuehrer, sieg heiling in robotic frenzy, and the millions born after who have studied those 13 years of German history. Then there was the Holocaust, an event that continues to resonate and stir bitter memories of horror and disgust.


Perhaps the youth oriented Obama people failed to understand the lingering influence of such imagery or took a calculated risk that such memories were swiftly fading into oblivion. That kind of misstep might be indicative of another mental hole in their ranks, the danger inherent in dismissing the aspirations and dignity of older Americans. I wonder if these elders are as hungry for "change" as our younger citizens. Considering the limited time horizons of older Americans, one can speculate if "change" resonates with a more ominous meaning within this considerable voting bloc. Be forewarned Obama strategists. Beware of using the "age card" against McCain.


The McCain people, earlier dismissed as clueless over-the-hill dolts, were quick to understand the real implications of the Berlin venue and the speech. Perhaps their retooling has borne fruit.


At this point let me stress that I am discussing process not partisan ideology. Campaigning is all about manipulation, and the two principal levers that strategists pull are based on hopes and fears. When we see these talking head strategists on television, they are characterizing the candidates they are paid to serve as products. They are immersed in the technology of campaigning based on statistics, polls, focus groups and image making. They are not advocates, but technicians. When Hillary Clinton talks about "playbooks," she is correct. Each side works from its own playbook, and one side inevitably is at war with the playbook of the other. Think football.


In the case of the Obama in Germany play, the opposition came up with what I believe is a brilliant counter strategy, creating matching commercials that got more exposure on the Internet and on televised news shows than their limited paid ad schedules. The first compared the crowds that came to hear Obama to the adoration of the mindless multitudes who worship on the altar of the celebrity culture, mostly the young, who the Obama people believe is their prime target audience. The second compared Obama, as his German oracular speech clearly spelled out in his "This is the moment" declaration, to the biblical prophet, Moses, but cleverly illustrated by the Hollywood actor Charlton Heston in the role. The implication is that Obama has received the call and is fated to lead us somewhere where magical change is supposed to happen.


The real message of those subtle and cunning ads was comparing Obama to you know who. It was not about Britney Spears or Paris Hilton or Moses, and anyone who thinks so is naïve and has not grasped the significance and subliminal effect of the powerful suggestion inserted into these two commercials. That message was designed to stoke fear and doubt, fear that Obama was insinuating to a giant crowd of mesmerized German onlookers that he was operating in the context of some self-generated messianic mission and doubt about the content of his words and his judgment in failing to assess the power of historical memory.


I cannot believe the very clever Obama pros and the candidate himself did not see that one coming. In one swoop it cast doubt upon Obama's content and eloquence and suggested a comparison to a man who created one of the greatest bloodbaths in human history and who used words and eloquence as his principal weapons of mass persuasion.


The reaction to it telescoped the message that the McCain people are no longer as lackadaisical and out of touch as they have been portrayed.


Were the ads negative? Depends on whose ox is being gored. It was certainly a putdown of deliberate Obama campaign manipulation. Wasn't the Berlin speech an attempt to trash the Bush legacy and spread manure all over the McCain candidacy? It was staged to illustrate the alleged low esteem that some Europeans have for the present American administration and by inference John McCain. Good in theory. Bad venue. Clueless speech.


These campaigns are not playing tiddlywinks. They are engaged in combat in a war for the greatest democratic prize of all, the Presidency of the United States. All their debates, their utterances, their commercials, are a form of combat, and they have enlisted armies of officers and foot soldiers to win their war. If you have any doubts, just plug into the blogosphere and survey the hostility and anger in the war of words that motivates the followers of both candidates and what is sure to see slashing counterpunches to this blog. I stand prepared. It's an old cliché to shoot the messenger.


Even in the fast moving battleground of a contentious presidential campaign, the McCain people will surely wield its weapon again and again to reinforce the blunder of Obama in Berlin. What does one remember of the Goldwater campaign if not the Lyndon Johnson "Daisy H bomb commercial," which you can find on YouTube, or go all the way back to the Dewey campaign and the image that characterized him as the "little man on the top of the wedding cake?" I could go on and on. You see, historical memory matters and political campaigns are often won and lost on imagery that can act like a vampire sucking the blood out of an unwitting candidate.

Expect both campaigns to make errors of judgment as they progress. The McCain people have already made their fair share of dumb moves, but their counter to the Berlin speech indicates that there are some very shrewd and canny people who have just come aboard the Straight Talk Express.


This is not to say that the Obama braintrust has lost its way. There are many talented and hard eyed professionals in the upper ranks of the campaign. And their candidate is certainly attractive, astute and, despite disclaimers, calculating and politically combative.

But they had better not start believing their own publicity and not let the generational divide blind them to the reality of the folks who dine on early bird dinners, wear hearing aids and spectacles, and know that George Patton wore pearl handled pistols, can remember cars like the Nash and the Hudson, that Clark Gable was once the king of Hollywood and that the Hula Hoop once swiveled the hips of a nation. However haltingly, these folks are ambulatory enough to vote, even in those new fangled voting machines.

Warren Adler is the author of 30 novels, including The War of the Roses and his latest, Funny Boys. Read more of his blogs at The Writer's Life


don russell said...

Interesting analysis, but a bit of a stretch.
When and if you've the time, I'd sure appreciate reading your vision of the United States; as was, as is, and what you'd like to see the nation become.
(or, since you've probably done this 100 times, steer me to the appropriate column.)
don russell

Michael said...

Talk of Life repeating Art repeating Life!

In my thriller, THE GRAIL CONSPIRACIES, I used a fictional rock star with international political ambitions, "Twisted Messiah," consciously echoing Hitler in whipping up frezied crowds at an abandoned East German air base near Berlin . . . a performance broadcast world-wide.

Then art became reality in Berlin a couple of weeks ago: it really happened, with Obama playing the role of my fictional Twisted Messiah, and the same kind of crowd I had written of, and the same international media blast!

Good for you, Warren! I have not seen a more concise, targeted commentary on the unintended implications of Obama's appearance.

Yes, Obama's team should have looked beyond to realize the subtle messages sent, not just to the WWII crowd, but also to young'uns who are beginning to fear this merger of hype-and-glory with politics, and the real and very serious implications.

Hope you don't mind my sending that to my my merry band of e-mailing elves!

Many thanks for the clear perceptions,
Michael McGaulley

Warren Adler said...


Isn't it interesting how our works of fiction presage the truth? It has happened to me often. I'm quite anxious to read your book and will order it pronto. I am really shocked that the Obama people missed the implications.

Michael said...

Hi Warren,

Interesting week. You nailed it on Obama's speech and its reverberations. Can it be that it was heard in Moscow as well . . . as a coast-is-clear to send the tanks south?

Glad to hear the premise of my Grail Conspiracies intrigued you. I'll be happy to send you a copy, a way of paying back for all hte good reading I've gotten from yours over the years.

Michael McGaulley

Judy said...

I am reassured by your continued voice of memory, reason and awareness. We'll see who actually shows up to vote - the "young uns" or us.

Warren Adler said...

Thanks, Judy.

Pete said...

Sorry, Warren, but I disagree. Obama's appearance in Berlin, while admittedly a work of political theater, was also an act of outreach to the Western European public which has been so demeaned by the go-it-alone Bush administration. It's yet another example of Obama's commitment to cooperating and working with others who don't necessarily agree with his views, unlike Bush and his rigid "you're either with us or against us" dichotomy.