He has drawn record-breaking crowds to rallies all over the United States. But it took a trip to Germany for Barack Obama to attract his biggest audience of all: More than 200,000 people packed into a central Berlin park on Thursday to hear Obama call for closer ties between Europe and America.
The sea of people in Tiergarten, Berlin’s central park, stretched a full mile, from the Victory Column where Obama spoke to the historic Brandenburg Gate. Obama’s rhetoric was no less sweeping. The all-but-certain Democratic nominee for president voiced aspirations for a world that abolishes nuclear arms, banishes “the scourge of AIDS,” feeds the poor in Chad and Bangladesh, unites against Muslim extremism and stops global warming.
“People of Berlin, people of the world, this is our moment,” Obama told the throngs. “This is our time.”
Obama’s campaign staged the event to maximize its visual impact. Cameras captured the scene from helicopters. Aides to the candidate hoisted photographers and reporters on a cherry picker to survey the view.
For his arrival, the Illinois senator, dressed in a business suit, walked alone around the Victory Column, a 226-foot pillar near the center of the park. It is an ornate monument to Prussian war triumphs of the 19th century, including the 1871 defeat of France, the country Obama will visit today.
The crowd roared as Obama made his way several hundred feet down a makeshift runway to the lectern where he stood for the speech. Police carrying rifles patrolled on a high ledge of the Victory Column.
The speech was the dramatic showpiece of a nine-day overseas trip that has taken Obama to Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. After meeting in Paris today with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Obama will travel to London, his last stop.
In Berlin, Obama met Thursday morning with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The agenda included Pakistan, Middle East peace talks, trade and the economy.
Before his arrival, Merkel had complained publicly about Obama considering the Brandenburg Gate as a location for his speech.
“I have always said that I think that the Brandenburg Gate is a good site for a speech of a U.S. president, or other presidents,” she said Wednesday. “But a campaigning speech should not take place [there].
“This might be seen as a bit old-fashioned, and there might be different opinions.”
In the end, Obama’s crowd was so big that it reached the gate.
His advisors hoped the rousing reception -- Berlin police put the crowd size at 215,000 -- would illustrate that Obama had the potential to improve America’s image abroad. He touched on that theme in his speech.
“In Europe, the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help us make it right, has become all too common,” he said.
Indeed, polls show that many Europeans loathe President Bush and would welcome Obama as his successor. “He’s young, he’s active, he wants change, and nobody can do worse than Bush,” said Alexander Bobenko, 48, a Berlin mathematician in the crowd.
But critics, led by Obama’s Republican rival John McCain, said the Democrat’s speech showed that he was presumptuous about the presidency.
“While Barack Obama took a premature victory lap today in the heart of Berlin, proclaiming himself a ‘citizen of the world,’ John McCain continued to make his case to the American citizens who will decide this election,” McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said.
McCain’s campaign also hammered Obama for canceling his planned visit Friday morning to U.S. military personnel at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Obama “decided out of respect for these servicemen and -women that it would be inappropriate to make a stop to visit troops at a U.S. military facility as part of a trip funded by the campaign,” spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
“Barack Obama is wrong,” McCain spokesman Brian Rogers responded. “It is never ‘inappropriate’ to visit our men and women in the military.”
McCain’s team also mocked Obama for urging Europe to commit more troops to the war in Afghanistan, assailing his failure to call hearings on the conflict. “Ich bin ein hypocrite” was the title of a Republican National Committee e-mail to the media.
Beyond terrorism, Obama also pledged unity with Europe in fighting climate change.
“Let us resolve that we will not leave our children to a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads, and terrible storms devastate our lands,” he said.
“Let us resolve that all nations, including my own, will act with the same seriousness of purpose as has your nation, and reduce the carbon we send into our atmosphere.”
Invoking the Berlin airlift of 1948 and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Obama suggested that victory over communism shows that humanity can overcome its toughest challenges.
“People of the world, look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one,” he said.
Obama also echoed President Reagan’s 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate exhorting Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
“The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand,” Obama said. “The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand.
“These now are the walls we must tear down.”
Striking a note of optimism, he continued, “Here at the base of a column built to mark victory in war, we meet in the center of a Europe at peace.”