Berlin-based journalist A.J. Goldmann, who has written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, sent us this dispatch from Obama's speech today. Clck here to download a podcast of his dispatch.
Today none of the quotidian annoyances of Berlin life seemed to matter. Not the open ended strike by Berlin's public service, nor the maddening traffic changes brought upon by the never ending construction. All attention was focused squarely on Barack Obama's visit today.
Obama has been greeted here as nothing short of a political celebrity. This morning, the senator's picture was splashed across the front page of virtually every Berlin newspaper. Even the large circulation tabloid BILD ran an image of Obama directly above its topless cover girl.
It often feels that few people hold real jobs in Berlin, a city with an enormous number of artists, students, and unemployed. Still, it was surprising to see the crowds that lined up in the early afternoon.
People were admitted to Tiergarten--Berlin's massive central park--starting at 4 p.m. There was airport level security at the park's entrance, including metal detectors and thorough inspections of all bags and electronics. Near the security check was a station where Berlin-based Americans--of which there are roughly 13,000--could register to vote and tables set up by assorted environmental organizations distributing leaflets.
After security, the masses filled the wide Strasse der 17 Juni--the setting of the legendary and lewd Love Parade--until the imposing Victory Column, a kilometer later. In advance of Senator Obama's appearance, there was a performance by a mediocre reggae artist.
The weather was warm and mild as Obama addressed the crowd from the Victory Column, facing the Brandenburg Gate, with the sun setting behind him. Once the applause for the senator dies down, the thousands of spectators--many munching on bratwurst and drinking beer--remained behaved and respectful during his half-hour long address.
That crowd was a healthy mix of young and old, with a large number of Americans and Africans in attendance. Many wore Obama tee-shirts of various designs, some with his campaign slogan "Change we can believe in." Some were even draped in American flags, a sight none too common in Berlin, where the war in Iraq is largely condemned and anti-Bush sentiment runs high.
The natives greeted the speech with a surprising lack of cynicism. There were, however, two junctures where Obama was met with derision. The emphasis he placed on the war against drugs drew scattered boos, a reaction not too unexpected in a city where marijuana is partially legalized. His line about America having made its "share of mistakes" drew cheers and laughter from an audience that felt Obama had made the understatement of the century.
But all in all, the Berliners around me were swept up by the bravura performance and the inspired rhetoric, which was met with massive cheers. Even without simultaneous translation into German, Obama's repeated call for tearing down walls between peoples and nations resonated powerfully in this of all cities.
(Photo Credit: Paul J. Thomas)