The press loved it. The visuals, with the warm "glow of sunset" were "powerful" and "hard to beat." Some commentators even evoked Ronald Reagan, whose speeches not only sang but were always perfectly staged. Political opponents groused about audacious overreach, but underlying the criticisms was jealousy at a well crafted—and television-dominating—political event.
Barack Obama in Berlin on Thursday? No. George W. Bush on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 in an address now recalled as the "Mission Accomplished" speech. Bush never uttered the phrase, but it was displayed on a banner hanging behind him.
Obama's rock-star turn before 200,000 in Germany has received predominately positive press coverage. But U.S. politics is littered with speeches remembered far differently in history's final drafts than in its first ones. The lesson for Obama is that powerful words and images are still subject to larger events.
When Dwight Eisenhower warned his fellow citizens in January 1961 of the "acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex," it garnered little notice. The torch was about to be passed to a dashing, young cold warrior, and the staid old general was yesterday's news. Ike had told his speechwriter that he was not interested in capturing headlines with his farewell address, and in that he succeeded. But as the Cold War stretched on for decades, Eisenhower's valedictory words gained new resonance.
Reaction is not always so delayed. In November 1969, when Richard Nixon asked for the support of "the great silent majority of my fellow Americans," television pundits were unimpressed. "Nothing of a substantial nature or a dramatic nature that is new," CBS's Eric Sevareid said of the speech, which called upon Americans to support Nixon in continuing the Vietnam War long enough to achieve peace with honor. In the White House, Nixon fumed—"if [you] only do one thing get 100 vicious dirty calls to New York Times and Washington Post about their editorials (even though no idea what they'll be)," Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, writing in his diary, recalled Nixon ordering. But the "silent majority" quickly made itself heard with record numbers of telegrams and letters to the White House supporting the president.
Jimmy Carter also received a record volume of mail a decade later in response to a 1979 speech. When Carter spoke to the nation that July, he was capping two weeks sequestered at Camp David grappling with the nation's energy crisis. "In this most critical speech of his presidency, he delivered his text more effectively than he has ever done before," the Washington Post's David Broder wrote. "His voice was strong throughout and, on occasions, ringing." Carter's flagging poll numbers shot up 11 points overnight. But the arc of Carter's presidency—and specifically his decision two days later to ask for resignations from his cabinet—weighed against the speech. It is remembered now as the fatal "malaise" address, even though Carter never used that word.
In 1995, facing a Republican Congress after a historic rebuke from the voters in 1994, Bill Clinton delivered a record-setting 81-minute State of the Union address (more than a third of which he extemporized) that was roundly criticized by the media. Anyone hoping that Clinton, faced with an existential political crisis, would display "signs of a new political acuity and a new personal discipline" must have been disappointed, the Times's R. W. Apple Jr., wrote the next day. Yet the speech was a major hit with the electorate and marked an early sign of another Clinton political revival.
Barack Obama's Berlin speech this week evoked Reagan and JFK, according to the Chicago Tribune. It was a dream foreign affairs photo op, a Washington Post columnist wrote. The Post's news coverage noted that Obama has "generated enormous enthusiasm in Europe, in part because many here see him as an antidote to President Bush."
But there are a couple of lessons for Obama (and his critics). The first is not to mistake conventional wisdom for actual wisdom. The Berlin speech may be remembered as an important marker on his path to the presidency, or it might be recalled as a turning point where his campaign's balance shifted too far to audacity instead of hope. Which brings up the second point: A president has to be able to both clearly understand and also shape the context in which he addresses the American people. Presidential words are effective when they resonate with the country's political realities (whether the media perceive them or not) and when a chief executive has the skills to alter the context to fit the words. The degree to which Obama has these other skills required of a president remains unknown.
Robert Schlesinger is a deputy assistant managing editor at U.S.News & World Report. He is also the author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters (Simon & Schuster, 2008).