BERLIN - 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 yesterday to hear Obama give a wide-ranging speech on his call for closer ties between Europe and America.
The sea of people in the 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 likely 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," he said. "This is our time." His campaign staged the event to maximize its visual impact. Cameras captured the scene from helicopters hovering overhead. Aides to the candidate hoisted photographers and reporters on a "cherry picker" crane to survey the view.
For his arrival, the Illinois senator walked alone around the Victory Column, a 226-foot-tall 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, which Obama will visit today.
The crowd roared as Obama made his way 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 yesterday morning with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Pakistan, Mideast peace talks, trade and the economy were on the agenda.
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]."
Critics, led by Obama's Republican rival John McCain, said the Democrat's speech showed his presumptuousness about winning the White House.
"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 this 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 Europeans to commit more troops to the war in Afghanistan, assailing his failure to call hearings on the conflict.
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 Ronald Reagan's 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate, when he implored 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, Christians and Muslims and Jews cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down."
Michael Finnegan writes for the Los Angeles Times.