Letter from Berlin: Hope Springs… Momentarily

By Stan Persky | April 5, 2009

Berlin — I suppose we’ll get used to it after awhile: an American president goes to Europe and does just about everything right. Thoughtful policy presentation, absence of imperial bullying, and a sure-handed human touch. President Barack Obama’s first official European trip, which began at a mid-week G-20 conference in London, followed by stops in Strasbourg and Baden-Baden, wrapped up on Sunday in Prague, with a policy speech in flower-bedecked Castle Square before thousands of people, calling for an end to nuclear weapons.

As one of the legion of reporters, freelancers and commentators that has covered the European political scene for some years, saying nice things about any public figure doesn’t come easy. Those of us in the 4th, 5th, and cyber-estates are just going to have to re-tool to cover the current American incumbent. Even before Obama offered his idealistic hopes about the elimination of nuclear weapons (behind which lie some pragmatic hopes for an actual reduction of nuclear stockpiles) to Czechs in Prague, writers for the New York Times’ Sunday edition were already practising using softer quills instead of the usual barbs to sum up the president’s European tour.

For London-based journalist A.A. Gill, it wasn’t Obama’s presence at an international conference “to save the endangered habitat of bankers andf real estate salesmen” that caught the public eye as much as a handshake with a British bobby.

“As the president stepped up to 10 Downing Street,” the headquarters of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Obama “leant over, made eye contact, said something courteous and shook the hand of the police officer standing guard,” reported Gill. “There’s always a police officer there; he is a tourist logo in his ridiculous helmet… No one has ever shaken the hand of the policeman before, and like everyone who has his palm touched by Barack Obama, he was visibly transported and briefly forgot himself. He offered the hand to Gordon Brown, who was scuttling behind. It was ignored. It isn’t that Mr. Brown snubbed the police officer; he just didn’t see him. To a British politician, a police officer is as invisible as the railings.”

Gill’s point: “But the rest of us noticed. Because in this country that still feels the class system like a phantom limb, being overtly kind to servants is the very height of manners, the mark of true nobility.” Both the Obamas, Michelle and Barack, scored points for being “classlessly classy.”

From France, the report of Amelie Nothomb, the reigning starlet of the current French literary season, was headed, “Liberty, Equality, Envy”: “The feeling in Europe, and especially in France, about Barack Obama’s presidency is as clear as day: we are envious.”

Envious, but not pollyannish. “We are aware that the results of Mr. Obama’s economic policy are not good — not yet — and that there is little chance they will be wonderful… Nonetheless, we are envious because Americans are so evidently proud of their president… We would love to feel the same way about our presidents and leaders.” Nothomb praised Obama’s “spirit of cooperation with Europe,” which came almost as a surprise, “for we are no longer accustomed to such things after years of George W. Bush’s isolationism.”

Even Obama’s town-hall meeting with high school students in Strasbourg, site of the European Parliament, though practically a set-piece of the president’s repertoire, was pitch perfect. I read the transcript the next day. Obama hit all the right notes — closure of Guantanamo prison camp, pledge of no torture and playing by the rules, calls for mutual responsibility — and roused all the right cheers from the kids. Sure, it’s something of a game, especially for us gimlet-eyed critics, but from a professional spectator’s perspective, one has to admit that Obama plays it well. And every once in a while, staring at the pageant, no matter how jaded the eye of the political beholder, you just shake your head and murmur, Gee, this guy is really the president of the United States… amazing. Sure, George Bush is not a hard act to follow, but still.

German novelist Christoph Peters, writing from Berlin, judged that Obama’s working meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel in the tranquil spa town of Baden-Baden set the right tone, “more appropriate… than a program of touristy forays, throngs waving flaglets and bulletproof glass, the whole culminating in a neo-feudal state banquet.” Peters recognises that the “warnings that Mr. Obama must inevitably disappoint the hopes we’ve placed on him will probably turn out to have been somewhat justified. The incessant stimulation of today’s news media —  which keeps the public in permanent expectation of the next superlative — entails the danger that a peculiar feeling of emptiness will spread, followed by shame for past exuberance, as after a night of furious drinking.”

But so far, says Peters, “I’ve been unable to detect the slightest symptom of any such emotional hangover… People like my 75-year-old grandparents, who live in the countryside and have always thought and voted conservatively, are of the opinion that this presidency is off to a good start, as are nearly all of my friends here in Berlin.”

He sums it up this way: “For now, we ponder two things: Mr. Obama’s efforts to renew America’s claim that it accords greater political weight to moral tenets grounded in reason than to the urgings of self-interest and lobbyists, and his winning combination of intelligence, compassion and charm.”

Everyone knows that the central economic questions and that the policies implemented by Obama to date are up in the air, and that a judgment on them will only be feasible months from now. Sober minds expect that things might indeed become worse, and the “worse” being contemplated comes without the usual soothing “before they become better” tag-on. Most of us also understand that there are political constraints on what Obama can do, even if he wanted to do something other than what’s currently on offer. Only the far right screeching that his program has set America on the road to “socialism” and equivalent leftist groupuscules demanding same, seem unaware of the actual parameters.

Obama’s message about the “audacity of hope” has been tempered since his inauguration with increasing reference to “responsibility.” The latter has become something of a code-word implying that we, as individuals, really will have to change our lives, and that this whole exercise is not simply a matter of rhetoric, hopeful or otherwise. For now, as Obama returns to the “homeland,” here in “Old Europe,” hope continues to spring eternal… for the moment.


Berlin, April 5, 2009.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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