Paul Greenberg

Barack Obama chose St. Paul, Minn., to stage his victory or at least near-victory rally Tuesday night. It was a good way to stick a thumb in John McCain’s eye, since the Republicans have chosen to hold their national convention at the same arena.

Yet he overlooked the historical connotations of that site. Beautiful downtown St. Paul is where Walter Mondale delivered his concession speech after one of the most lopsided defeats in the history of American presidential elections: Ronald Reagan’s 49-state sweep in 1984.

For his last hurrah of the primary season, he chose a place associated with one of his party’s great defeats. It’s as if admirers of George Armstrong Custer were to gather at Little Bighorn, aka Custer’s Last Stand, to proclaim victory.

It’s no a big matter. The de facto Democratic presidential nominee had good reason to choose a battleground state and a battleground region for his big rally. But the choice also fits into a larger, unsettling pattern: The young senator seems tone-deaf to history.

For another example, he invoked the memory of John F. Kennedy in defense of his sweeping offer to meet the world’s most dangerous leaders ? like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il­ ? with no conditions attached. After all, he noted, hadn’t President Kennedy met with Soviet boss Nikita Khrushchev early in his administration?

To quote Senator Obama: “If George Bush and John McCain have a problem with direct diplomacy led by the president of the United States, then they can explain why they have a problem with John F. Kennedy, because that’s what he did with Khrushchev.”

He did it in Vienna in June of 1961, to be exact, and Nikita Sergeyevich sized up the young president at once. His considered opinion: “too intelligent and too weak.” It was just like First Secretary Khrushchev to equate intelligence with weakness. One of his aides was equally blunt: “Very inexperienced, even immature.”

In short, that meeting in Vienna - without proper preparation or any preconditions - proved “just a disaster,” to quote JFK’s assistant secretary of defense, Paul Nitze. The president himself agreed, telling the New York Times’ Scotty Reston immediately afterward that his meeting with the Soviet ruler had been the “roughest thing in my life.”

Comrade Khrushchev drew the logical conclusions from his meeting with the new American president: The guy was a pushover. The Berlin Wall went up that August, splitting the city and creating a focal point of tension and violence for decades.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.