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President Obama's Visit to Berlin

Speech at Brandenburger Gate, 19 June 2013

Soon after President Obama was reelected in November 2012, assumptions were voiced in the press that he would pay Berlin a visit now finally during his second term in office. Early in 2013, speculations circled around the G8 summit in Northern Ireland in June. Once his visit to was officially announced for June 18-19 subsequent to the summit, Americans and other interested parties here in Berlin were anxious to see their president.

Hopes for a large mass event as during Obama’s speech in front of the Victory Column were soon dashed. Obvious security concerns and the official desire for the representative ambiance of the Brandenburg Gate placed the planned event then inside Pariser Platz. Facing west to Straße des 17. Juni would have afforded room for thousands of more spectators, but it seems the “public” speech would be given to only a few thousand admitted to a limited access area.

How to get into the area was the question. Would it be on a first-come, first-serve basis on the day of the visit? Details were not being made public and my friends with Democrats Abroad in Berlin were not being informed either. It seems invitations were necessary, but nobody was giving the Democrats here in Berlin or even Germany a stack of invitations, who certainly accounted for some of Obama’s most avid fans.

Personally, I felt a bit of entitlement after all the voter registration I did last year, so I e-mailed a couple of contacts at the U.S. consulate to ask if they knew where I could apply for such an invitation. I was glad to hear that my name was placed then on some (recommendation?) list sent by the embassy to the “Auswertiges Amt” (the German foreign ministry) and that I would hear from them. I was overjoyed to get the official invitation finally then on the 17th, just two days before the visit. A few other friends from Democrats Abroad also were able to procure tickets, but also trough a myriad of various channels, such as other local German-American organizations or even their congressman. Those that got in easiest were students and teachers from the John F Kennedy School – 600 in all. I certainly had the envy of some of my friends who wished they would be able to accompany me.

Day of the visit – 19 June

My ticket said I should go through the screening tent at Dorothea-Schlegel-Platz, which is right next to Friedrichstraße train station, between 1:00 and 1:30 p.m. I was wondering why the entrance was so far away from the Brandenburg Gate. Would all the block in-between be blocked off? That would be hard to imagine. Nevertheless, there was a line of guests leading to the gap in a low police barrier fence that surrounded the tent there when I arrived early during my allotted time slot. Two security people checked and scanned my invitation by the time I entered the tent. On the one side was a long desk by clerks from the foreign ministry. Seemed they were overstaffed, because almost all were idle (at the moment), so I had I wide choice of whom to get a visitors badge from. Across on the other side of the room were the obligatory metal detectors to walk through and the X-ray machines for your bags to run through. I picked up a cup of water from a dispenser then as I exited the tent. Bottles were prohibited of course.

Outside the tent, there was a corridor made by a police barrier fence that led you down the street to the Unter den Linden avenue and then down to the Brandenburg Gate. Policemen were left and right to make sure nobody jumped the fence or anything was passed across.

After a 10-minute walk, I arrived at the Pariser Platz. I found many people loitering in the shade of the Adlon Hotel. Otherwise, there wasn’t much shape on the square. Fortunately, there were many water dispensers set up all around. The lines were long for them and those responsible were constantly busy replacing empty water jugs. Some snack pastry food was being passed out for free as well.

Arriving at the square, you were at first confronted by the huge press stand, which was almost as wide as the avenue. The middle of the square beyond that was open for standing room, with a small press stand for a couple of TV cameras in the center. On the right (north side), were some canopied snack and water stands and a large video screen. On the left (south side), there were some bleachers. Nearer to the stage was a fenced-off area reserved for VIPs. Beyond that was finally the wide stage with a large inconspicuous protective glass wall across its entire front edge. On stage were just a couple of stuffed chairs and the pulpit in the middle. There was quite a bit of space beyond the stage then still to the Brandenburg Gate. There was a small music stage to the right of the main stage where Jocelyn B. Smith was providing entertainment.

I was on the look-out then for friends and acquaintances from Democrats Abroad. Found some then by the DA flag attached to the bleachers. As it was getting hot in the sun, I folded myself a paper hat out of some newspaper advertising I had along.

The JFK school had occupied a section in the bleachers and had a banner out front. I went to see if I could find anyone I knew there and sure enough I found a teacher there, Susi (my ex-wife), with her youngest Khalil. Since Khalil preferred to sit on his mother’s lap, I was offered his seat, which I gladly accepted.

We were in the second to last row, with only policemen behind us later. As a large group, the Kennedy school had to be there since about noon and they certainly could use the water being offered. Where I was seated, I didn’t have a clear view of the lectern. There was a tall grated tower in between, which supported the speakers. But if I held out my camera far enough I could get an unobstructed picture of whoever would be speaking.

While we were waiting, we saw what we assumed was the President’s motor arcade approach from down 17. Juni, but I guess it drove around the corner to the Ritz Carlton hotel on Potsdammer Platz, so Obama could freshen up.

In the meantime, the policemen who were lined up behind us got a bit nervous as they spotted a woman looking out of an open bay window near the top of the high rise building over the French embassy on the square across from us. Evidently that wasn’t permitted according to security regulations. Heard the ranking policemen talk into their cell phones about that. That window was closed before the speeches started.

Violinist David Garrett had time to provide one more warm-up act, including a rendition of “Born in the USA”, before the speeches began. The square was slowly being filled. There were about 4000 guests invited. Another thousand could have easily found standing room, but then it might be a bit dangerous in case of a panic. I was under the impression however that at least half of those present were not Germans.

Then finally a voice came over the loudspeakers that Mayor Klaus Wowereit was about to speak. The crowd sounded a bit displeased at this, but the announcement continued with Chancellor Merkel and President Obama to be speaking as well of course.

Cheers went up when Wowereit, Merkel, and Obama appeared from the corner of the Brandenburg Gate near the U.S. embassy, walked to and ascended the stage, waving at the audience. I was so happy to see Barak Obama in person for the first time. Mayor Klaus Wowereit spoke his welcome first for just about five minutes followed by Chancellor Merkel who spoke about ten minutes. Both managed to insert references to Kennedy’s historical speech, which has its 50th anniversary on the 26th. A funny thing happened though when Merkel said something that sounded like she was introducing Obama about half-way through her speech. He mistakenly took this as his cue to approach the lectern and stood up. After just a step or two he realized his error and, exchanging surprized looks with Wowereit, he sat down again. Don’t think this was especially picked up by the media.

The president's booming “Hello, Berlin!” with which he began his speech then was met with thunderous applause. He got even more informal then when he announced “We can be a little more informal among friends,” as he took of his jacket due to the heat. Obama also made reference to Kennedy’s speech, but also carried on the spirit invoke by the President back then. Dreams and ambitions from those years have become reality by today, however we should not become complacent with what has been achieved. Obama quoted Kennedy's notion of “peace with justice” a dozen of times, for example in that people need economic security to be able to support democracy.

The audience was anxious to hear what Obama had to say on the scandal of the NSA spying on Germany, which just surfaced recently. He said something about the interests of security and privacy needing to be balanced.

My ears perked up then when Obama said he had an important announcement. He said he was negotiating with Russia about reducing nuclear arms by a third.

The full speech from The White House, Office of the Press Secretary can be read here: “Remarks by President Obama at the Brandenburg Gate – Berlin, Germany.” A summary from SPIEGEL Magazine can be read here: “Obama Invokes Kennedy in Speech.”

After the ¾-hour speech, he along with Merkel and Wowereit (whom Obama had mispronounced as “Wowareet”, to the audience’s amusement) descended the stage at the far end, smiling to the press, and circled back between the stage and the gate. There was no shaking of hands with any one of the audience along the way. He did take note though of the other Democrats Abroad banner that was suspended from the bleachers by some DAs who were seated in that VIP end of the bleachers towards the gate. They were glad to be acknowledged.

As we were descending from the bleachers, Susi said Khalil was feeling sick (I though he was just getting bored towards the end) and that he needed to throw up into some garbage can. We ran across the square, didn’t find a garbage can, but Khalil wasn’t vomiting anyway. Susi wanted me to get help from the Red Cross; I said it’d be quicker to take Khalil there around the corner right away instead of going back and forth. Susi scooped up Khalil, I offered to carry him instead, and she refused, but then did hand him off to a security man who had noticed our emergency. He rushed Khalil off to the corner of the square. I followed with Khalil’s hat, which I passed on to Susi as they approached the Red Cross tent. I left them there and found out later that Khalil was okay again pretty soon after cooling down in the shade and getting some water. I could just imagine the headline though: “Obama’s Speech Makes Little Boy Sick.”

I walked back up Unter den Linden to Glinkastraße where the nearest public barriers were. A small crowd was gathered there with a few protest signs. Friends of mine from American Voices Abroad had joined an Amnesty International rally at Potsdammer Platz earlier in the afternoon to remind the president about his promise to close down the Guantanamo prison. I’m sure he’s working on it though, trying to get past the obstructionists in Congress.

I found my way down to the Stadtmitte subway station and went back to work for an hour or so. My colleagues were eager to hear what I had to report.

Later I met up again with the Democrats Abroad for the Obama Biergarten Party at the Zollpackhof, joined by their friends of the Deutsch-Amerikanische Vereinigung für Parlamentsmitarbeiter (DAVP). We were all proud of Obama’s speech and his acknowledgement at the Brandenburg Gate. Some frustration was stated though that gaining admission was so complicated and unorganized. Envy was voiced too that the Kennedy school had such a large contingent. I was wondering how your average German would have gotten in. Seems admission was possible by invitation only via organizations that had to deal with the German foreign office.

In any case, the event certainly was my political highlight of the year.