Friday, July 25, 2008

Lofty Rhetoric Only Works For Republicans

David Brooks lays into Barack Obama for daring to be optimistic about the future in his speech in Berlin.

Obama’s tone was serious. But he pulled out his “this is our moment” rhetoric and offered visions of a world transformed. Obama speeches almost always have the same narrative arc. Some problem threatens. The odds are against the forces of righteousness. But then people of good faith unite and walls come tumbling down. Obama used the word “walls” 16 times in the Berlin speech, and in 11 of those cases, he was talking about walls coming down.

The Berlin blockade was thwarted because people came together. Apartheid ended because people came together and walls tumbled. Winning the cold war was the same: “People of the world,” Obama declared, “look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together and history proved there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one.”

When I first heard this sort of radically optimistic speech in Iowa, I have to confess my American soul was stirred. It seemed like the overture for a new yet quintessentially American campaign.

But now it is more than half a year on, and the post-partisanship of Iowa has given way to the post-nationalism of Berlin, and it turns out that the vague overture is the entire symphony. The golden rhetoric impresses less, the evasion of hard choices strikes one more.

When John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan went to Berlin, their rhetoric soared, but their optimism was grounded in the reality of politics, conflict and hard choices. Kennedy didn’t dream of the universal brotherhood of man. He drew lines that reflected hard realities: “There are some who say, in Europe and elsewhere, we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin.” Reagan didn’t call for a kumbaya moment. He cited tough policies that sparked harsh political disagreements — the deployment of U.S. missiles in response to the Soviet SS-20s — but still worked.


Much of the rest of the speech fed the illusion that we could solve our problems if only people mystically come together. We should help Israelis and Palestinians unite. We should unite to prevent genocide in Darfur. We should unite so the Iranians won’t develop nukes. Or as Obama put it: “The walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.”

The great illusion of the 1990s was that we were entering an era of global convergence in which politics and power didn’t matter. What Obama offered in Berlin flowed right out of this mind-set. This was the end of history on acid.

Mr. Brooks goes on and explains that the world is a much harsher place, with cruel people and competing interests that are ready to piss all over Obama’s “lofty optimism.”

But he has grown accustomed to putting on this sort of saccharine show for the rock concert masses, and in Berlin his act jumped the shark. His words drift far from reality, and not only when talking about the Senate Banking Committee. His Berlin Victory Column treacle would have made Niebuhr sick to his stomach.

Obama has benefited from a week of good images. But substantively, optimism without reality isn’t eloquence. It’s just Disney.

But what Mr. Brooks conveniently forgets is that Mr. Obama is not, as all the teeth-gnashing and grumpy McCain campaign shills point out, the president and he does not have the right to go to the Middle East and Europe and put forth foreign policy. And if he did, you can be sure that Mr. Brooks would have been all over him for his presumptuousness. After all of the bumbling and neo-con saber-rattling by an inarticulate goofball who literally rubbed the Germans the wrong way, Mr. Brooks is in no position to dictate to Barack Obama on how to act when he’s overseas. America has suffered from eight years of lousy images, so when a presidential candidate is greeted with rapturous relief by our allies abroad — after being goaded into making the trip by Republicans — Mr. Brooks should remember that if John McCain had somehow been able to pull off such a feat, he’d have been effusive in his praise for the “new beginning.” As it is, his peevish jealousy is just unbecoming… and hilarious.