Clinton pleads for ethnic tolerance in Berlin, calls for world of bridges

July 13, 1994|By Paul West and Dan Fesperman | Paul West and Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondents

BERLIN -- In an encore to the Cold War pledges of his boyhood idol, President Clinton preached a message of racial, ethnic and religious tolerance to a huge crowd yesterday in formerly Communist East Berlin.

Strolling eastward, Mr. Clinton became the first U.S. president to pass through the Brandenburg Gate, which divided the free and Communist worlds until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

"America is on your side now and forever," declared Mr. Clinton, speaking the line first in German in a conscious echo of his hero, John F. Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy delivered one of his most famous lines here in June 1963, saying, "Ich bin ein Berliner," or "I am a Berliner," words of assurance at a time when the western half of the city was encircled and threatened.

But even though Mr. Clinton was enthusiastically received by about 50,000 people, he could not recapture the urgency of Mr. Kennedy's speech.

In those days a pronouncement by a U.S. president could mean enough aid to get through another winter or more military muscle to keep holding off the communists.

Today, Germans worry about the same things Americans do -- jobsand pay -- and Mr. Clinton could offer neither.

So instead he offered moral support and words of advice.

"The Berlin Wall is gone," Mr. Clinton declared. "Now our generation must decide what will we build in its place.

"Standing here today, we can see the answer: a Europe where all nations are independent and democratic, where free markets and prosperity know no borders, where our security is based on building bridges, not walls."

As he did last week in the former Soviet republic of Latvia, Mr. Clinton pleaded for greater tolerance of minorities. Anti-foreigner violence and neo-Nazi activity has surged in Germany in recent years.

"We must reject those who would divide us with scalding words about race, ethnicity or religion," he said. He appealed especially to young Germans to "believe you can live in peace with those who are different from you."

His words drew applause from the Berlin crowd, in sharp contrast to the reaction of his audience in Latvia, where his preachings were met with stony silence.

Berliners came away from the speech impressed, and they were quick to pick up on the echoes of JFK.

"He looks something like Kennedy," said Wolfgang Bauer, 59, who, as a university student, saw the late president speak in 1963. "Mr. Kennedy then was a fresh face after a long period of war."

Mr. Clinton is another young leader coming after a difficult era, hesaid, "and he conveys to people the feeling that he means what he says, which is not common with politicians."

It would have been almost impossible for Mr. Clinton to visit Berlin without some acknowledgment of the Kennedy legacy.

When his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, delivered a high school commencement address yesterday, it was to the students of the John F. Kennedy School.

But not all Berliners were stirred by such links to the past. Knowing that they can no longer expect their lives to be affected much by a U.S. president, these people decided to ignore the advance publicity that promised that Mr. Clinton's speech would be a "historic moment."

"My job is more important than going to see a speech," said Thomas Schmieder, 47, as he shopped at an open-air market in the gritty east Berlin neighborhood of Lichtenberg.

Mr. Schmieder said he's more interested in what will come of the work at last weekend's economic summit in Naples.

"Clinton is not a sensation like Kennedy was," he said. "He is more concerned with his own country's economy."

In a theatrical opening to yesterday's event at the place where the Berlin Wall once stood, Mr. Clinton, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and their wives walked four abreast through streets cleared of traffic from the Reichstag, which is scheduled to reclaim its place as the seat of the German Parliament by 1998.

They crossed under the Brandenburg Gate at exactly 1 p.m. (7 a.m.EDT), a moment painstakingly planned by White House aides to coincide with the start of the morning TV news shows on the three major U.S. networks. But network producers, finding no big news in the appearance of a president in Berlin almost five years after the wall was torn down, chose not to carry the event live.

After his speech, Mr. Clinton presided over ceremonies deactivating the Berlin Brigade at McNair Barracks, which was home to thousands of American soldiers based in Berlin during the Cold War. The few remaining American soldiers are scheduled to leave the city in September, when the last foreign troops depart Germany.

After returning to the White House late last night from his weeklong European tour, Mr. Clinton was to go on a trip again today, flying to South Georgia to view the flood damage from recent heavy rains there.

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