Obama: The Apotheosis of History

In June 1948, in an overt act of aggression that marked the beginning of the Cold War, the Soviet Union sealed off West Berlin in an effort to drive Western occupation forces from East Germany. Rejecting the advice of virtually all of his diplomatic, military, and intelligence advisors, President Harry Truman responded with the Berlin Airlift, a high-risk undertaking that in slightly less than a year forced the Soviets to back down. Berlin’s rebirth as a free city began with that singular act of courageous statesmanship and for the duration of the Cold War remained a continuing rebuke to the claims of Communism as a superior way of life.

Thirteen years later, the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall to prevent East Germans from seeking refuge in the West. Faced with a fait accompli and lacking any feasible military options, President John F. Kennedy went to Berlin to send a message to the masters of the Kremlin. The memorable concluding line of his famous speech, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” was meant not only to express solidarity for the citizens of the beleaguered city, but to warn the Soviets that an attack against West Berlin would be treated as if it were an attack on the United States. West Berlin’s freedom was once again secured by an American president who knew how to project power.

In 1987, another American president, who did more than anyone to bring the Soviet Union to its knees, also went to Berlin. On that occasion Ronald Reagan, speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, delivered an even stronger message to the Kremlin: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” In a matter of months, the wall was gone, and not long thereafter so was the malignant threat of Soviet imperialism.

Twenty-one years after Reagan’s famous speech, Barack Obama, who has already been anointed by the mainstream media as America’s next president, also went to Berlin. In a gesture of breathtaking presumptuousness, his handlers first proposed a major address at the Brandenburg Gate. When that idea understandably failed to fly, the Anointed One settled for a pep rally at the Tiergarten, where he delivered a platitudinous speech filled with New Age nostrums and self-importance. It was long on politically correct bumper strips of the sort that please Bush-hating Europeans, but decidedly short on policy details that a real, as opposed to a play-acting, American president will have to devise in the next four years.


His description of America’s courageous determination to protect Berlin, and with it the freedom of the West, was curiously abstract, as if Berlin had been freed by a beneficent deus ex machina, which arose more or less spontaneously from some unified world spirit. The true cause of Berlin’s long plight – the aggressive malevolence of Soviet Communism – went unnoted, as did the principled realism of numerous American presidents and their willingness to use military power. To Obama, the Berlin Wall was but metaphor for all the walls – racial, religious, ethnic, national – that divide humanity. Calling himself a citizen of the world – whatever that means – as well as of the United States, the Senator entered a vacuous plea for greater international understanding and cooperation. On one level, of course, this is political bomfog of the sort dished out by those who, for example, think the United Nations is our last best hope for peace. On that level such talk may be dismissed as routine rhetorical bromide.

On another level, however, we’ve heard enough from the Senator over the past year to be concerned about his tendency toward what is called magical thinking – the narcissistic fantasy, so characteristic in children, that wishing something can make it so. Politicians are not exactly known for possessing peripherally situated egos, but Obama’s rhetoric has broken all hitherto existing records for declarations of self-importance. At the beginning of his campaign he remarked, “We are the hope of the future. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” It’s not everyday that a political candidate declares himself to be the apotheosis of history. When he locked up the Democratic nomination, he said, perhaps even more astonishingly, “I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” George Washington merely founded a nation; Abraham Lincoln merely kept the Union intact during a terrible civil war; Franklin Roosevelt merely defeated the Nazis; and Ronald Reagan merely rid the world of the Soviet menace. But Senator Obama apparently thinks he can go them all better; he will command the oceans.

If you happen to be an Obama supporter, or are otherwise convinced that the medium is the message, you will treat such talk as mere hopeful rhetoric, a bit over the top perhaps, but essentially harmless. But for the rest of us, the senator’s rhetoric opens a window on a soul whose inclinations bear watching.

Michael Uhlmann (1939-2019)

Michael Uhlmann served in the Reagan White House and taught American politics at the Claremont Graduate University.