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Spectacle in Berlin

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Barack Obama is a man in a hurry. He had barely quieted the criticism of his using the presidential seal with his name on it as a prop for his speeches before he suggested that he wanted to follow Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to Berlin to make a speech at the Brandenburg Gate. He got a lot of public reminders that Reagan and Clinton waited until they were sworn in to use the famous gate as backdrop.

The history and reflected glory of the Brandenburg Gate has trapped ambitious men before. What was built as an elaborate toll gate to collect from everyone entering and leaving the city quickly became a symbol of national honor. Napoleon marched under it when he entered Berlin in triumph in 1806. He seized the bronze goddess of peace and her chariot, pulled by four horses, from her place atop the gate and took it home to Paris as booty of war. France returned it eight years later, and the Germans gave her a new identity, calling her Victoria, goddess of victory.

When Paris fell to the Nazis in the summer of 1940, the Wehrmacht troops marched through the Brandenburg Gate swathed in swastikas. After Berlin was divided between East and West following the war, the bronze fell into neglect and disrepair, to be restored to monumental glory only when Germany was unified.

Barack Obama wants to bask in a little of that reflected glory, perhaps to ride in his imagination on one of the horses of the goddess of victory. Stung by critics, he dispatched his men to scout for other sites. There are lots to choose from. The restored Reichstag, with its gorgeous glass dome, would make a splendid photo-op, marking the return of democracy to Germany. The new United States Embassy on Pariser Platz is a symbol of renewed U.S.-German relations -- but George Bush the elder got there first, cutting a red ribbon to open the embassy on the Fourth of July. He also should be wary of the embassy because it resembles a vast bunker with its security requirements, and Berlin has given bunkers a bad name.

Obama could take a short walk from the embassy to pose at "Germania," an exhibition of models of the buildings Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, planned as a grand city to celebrate Nazi triumph after World War II. The Volkshalle, or people's hall, was modeled on Hadrian's Pantheon in Rome, intended as a world capital "comparable only to Egypt, Babylon or Rome." The hall would have been so large that the breath of the spectators would have become moisture to fall as an indoor rain. Sen. Obama could reflect there on how the hot air of big talk sometimes comes to naught.

A speech at the Olympic Stadium would recall the cheers for Jesse Owen, the black runner whose four gold medals in 1936 humiliated Der Fuehrer, mocking his rants of Aryan superiority. Sen. Obama could make the point that using the Olympics to score cheap political points is risky business. (China, take note.)

The senator could find a heroic backdrop at soon-to-close Tempelhof International Airport, nexus of the Berlin Airlift that saved the city's residents from cold and hunger when the Soviets tried to strangle West Berlin into submission in 1948.

The senator's scouts will confront difficulty and irony no matter where they pose him in Berlin. He's not running for office in Germany, and wherever he goes he'll remind thoughtful folks back home that George W. Bush is responsible for the warm relationship with the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Obama in Berlin might even remind American voters of some of Hillary Clinton's sharp criticism in the primary season, such as her remark that although Sen. Obama had been chairman of a Senate subcommittee on Europe, he never called a single hearing.

Spectacle draws crowds, but it can't replace substance. Merkel offered John McCain equal time in Berlin, but he probably doesn't need it. Aware that spectacle at the Brandenburg Gate might look more like the Nuremberg rally than an American-style political rally, a chastened Obama told The New York Times that he doesn't want the setting to distract from his message. "Our goal is for me to lay out how I think about the next administration's role in rebuilding a trans-Atlantic alliance."

The Europeans are swooning over Barack Obama, and wherever he speaks he'll no doubt stir big crowds. But Europeans still don't vote in our elections. Not yet.

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