Kennedy to Obama: The Evolution of Trans-Atlantic Ties


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Barack Obama's upcoming visit to Berlin has many fondly reminiscing of John F. Kennedy's momentous trip there 50 years ago. Though Germans still revere both presidents, the trans-Atlantic relationship has changed considerably since then. To Europe's detriment.

When US President Barack Obama was in Europe two years ago, he visited the Irish village of Moneygall, because a man named Henry Healy lives there.

Obama didn't know Healy, and he had never been to Moneygall before. But genealogists had discovered that one of Healy's ancestors, who emigrated to the United States in 1850, was Obama's great-great-great-grandfather.

In this way Moneygall became a perfect platform for Obama, a year before his election to a second term. It enabled him to demonstrate how much family means to him and how seriously he takes his European roots. He celebrated trans-Atlantic ties in Ireland, just as other presidents had done before him: Bill Clinton, with his relatively inconsequential Irish roots, Ronald Reagan and the most Irish of all presidents, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Obama was in Moneygall for 90 minutes. He gave Healy a hug, as if he were a close family member, and bravely forced down a pint of Guinness. Healy, an accountant, was so proud that he hardly knew what to do with himself, and Obama did his best to create the impression that his remote European relative was equally important to him. At the time, Obama was also anxious to demonstrate that his relationship with the Europeans was as steadfast as that of his predecessors.

And today?

When Obama, 51, visits the Irish island again next week, he won't be visiting Moneygall again and Healy will likely be left watching on television as Obama arrives in Northern Ireland for the G-8 summit. Afterward, the president is set to travel to Berlin with his wife Michelle, to the place where former President John F. Kennedy gave a speech 50 years ago, one that was celebrated at the time with as much enthusiasm as Obama's visit to Moneygall.

'Political Symbolism'

It is Obama's ninth European trip as president, but only his first state visit to Berlin. It took him four-and-a-half years to pay his official visit to Germany, the undisputed dominant power in Europe. The trip carries a great deal of importance for the Germans.

Obama's visit this month and the memory of the Kennedy visit 50 years ago highlight the special relationship between Germans and Americans, but they also show how much the world has changed since then. Kennedy's trip to Berlin was an almost ecstatic celebration of the protection and defense alliance, while the visit by the no less charismatic current president will probably end up being a more or less unexciting family affair. "It's mostly political symbolism, nothing more," says a government official in Berlin.

The Obama who arrives in Berlin will be a somewhat reserved American acquaintance who stays only as long as necessary. He will stay at the Ritz-Carlton, and Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck will join him for relatively mundane meetings.

He will also finally hold a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, as he had hoped to do as a candidate in 2008. This time Chancellor Merkel, who is running for re-election, will have no objections, because his speech will focus on the "deep and lasting ties" between Germans and Americans, shared values and the trans-Atlantic alliance. In their conversations, however, the politicians' will hardly be addressing a new world order, but rather much more prosaic topics like the advantages of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the planned free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States. One of the areas the agreement will cover is whether American chickens can be disinfected with chlorine for export to Europe, and which regulations should apply when European drugs are licensed for use in the United States.

Regulatory odds and ends instead of grand visions -- and yet when Obama, an American political superstar still largely unknown in Germany at the time, called upon Americans and Europeans to build "new bridges" around the globe at Berlin's Victory Column in the 2008 presidential election campaign, 200,000 listeners cheered enthusiastically. Even though it has since become clear that even Obama isn't perfect, the historical backdrop alone -- the Brandenburg Gate was a symbolic focal point of the Cold War -- will ensure that comparisons with Kennedy's triumphal visit will be unavoidable. On June 26, 1963, Kennedy, speaking on the steps of Rathaus Schöneberg, summed up the postwar trans-Atlantic alliance with four words: "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner).

The Promise of the Kennedy Years

It is ultimately their great speeches that have made both politicians so successful, speeches with which they have given hope to their country and the rest of the world. Next to the Berlin speech, Kennedy uttered some of his most memorable words in his 1961 inaugural address, when he said: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Obama spoke his most memorable words in his speech on race, his speech in Cairo and, not least, his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which made him famous overnight. At the time, he uttered a sentence that would become the great but still unfulfilled promise of his presidency: "There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there's the United States of America." But that had been precisely the promise of the Kennedy years.

America has now managed without the Kennedys for quite some time. Others have dominated politics for more than a quarter century: Reagan, the Bushes and Bill Clinton. But the country, which yearned for reconciliation after the culture wars of past years, believed that Obama, the black senator from Illinois, who did not clearly represent one of the two camps, and was neither right nor left, would continue the Kennedy tradition. Obama placed pragmatism above ideology and promised to reach across party lines.

Like JFK, Obama is no zealot. His actions are not what fascinate people, but rather his personality, even beyond politics. At the time, people loved JFK because he brought a new kind of life into the White House, a more real life. Americans loved the photos of his son JFK Jr. playing underneath his father's desk, of Sweet Caroline with her ponytail and her pony Macaroni and, of course, everyone was fascinated by First Lady Jacqueline, by her style, her taste and her class. The photos made the name Kennedy a benchmark of the idea of a new and better world. Today many Americans love their Obamas, the first black president, his wife Michelle, the teenagers and their dog Bo. Like the Kennedys, the Obamas have become icons of a new era.

Obama sensed this yearning for an ideal world from the very beginning, when he gave his first campaign speech, in February 2007, at John F. Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was playing for high stakes, making the historic claim that he could lead America into a new era, and he stuck to the script of the Kennedy years. It sounded presumptuous, cocky and a little flirtatious.

Notion of a Comeback

But Obama gave America the hope that he could deliver the country from the conflicts of the present -- those between rich and poor, between black and white and between the faithful and the agnostic. And he held out the prospect to large parts of the world that the aggressive realpolitik of his predecessor had served its time.

The deaths of John F. Kennedy and, five years later, his brother Robert, had suddenly destroyed the utopia associated with the name of America's first family. The Kennedys participated in the demise of that dream, as sex, drugs and alcohol transformed America's "First Family" into something far away from the ideal originally promised.

Which perhaps helps explain the enthusiasm for Obama, associated as it was with the notion of a comeback. Obama seized the opportunity and used the name that had become the benchmark of the idea of a new and better world. Like Kennedy, he gave his 2008 convention speech in a football stadium, and like Kennedy, he wrote a book that fascinated his country. He collaborated with Kennedy's speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, and appointed Caroline Kennedy, the only daughter of the murdered president, to the commission to select his vice-presidential candidate. She stood next to him in campaign appearances and said the words that infatuated America: That she had spent half her life waiting for this man -- a man who was so much like her father.

In this way, Obama became a symbol of the best possible future for the country, a young politician who was the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, born at a time when there were still states in the US that outlawed interracial marriage. He fulfilled the collective yearning for a new, friendlier America, one that is more open, tolerant and worldly, and for a new style of politics -- politics with a happy end.

Obama has now been in office for four-and-a-half years, but the promise remains unfulfilled. Just as Kennedy was unable to truly complete the transformation of his country, Obama has also been forced to disappoint. His supporters are particularly upset that he sometimes seems even more ruthless than his predecessor on issues of national security. And critics became even more vocal when the true scope of his administration's obsession with gathering personal data from the Internet was revealed last week.

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