“I am a Berliner,” said President John F. Kennedy on June 26, 1963, speaking to an estimated 450,000 West Berliners from a platform erected on the steps of Rathaus Schoneberg, 22 months after East Germany had built the infamous wall aimed at preventing emigration to the West. “All free men, wherever they may live,” the young American President said, “are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
Reading the New York Times account of the rally last Sunday in Paris, where 40 world leaders joined an estimated 1.5 million marchers to protest terrorism and affirm their commitment to the preservation of one of our most precious democratic values – unfettered speech – I was reminded of President Kennedy’s stirring address over a half-century ago in what was then West Berlin. Curious to know if I’d be as inspired now as I was over 50 years ago, I found and watched a YouTube video of the speech, which had truly stood the test of time. If you’re interested in witnessing a leader engaged in one of the highest leadership functions – touching hearts and rallying spirits in a noble cause, you’ll want to watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56V6r2dpYH8.
What more appropriate occasion to declare our country’s fervent support for free speech and to affirm our long-standing alliance with the French people could the President of the United States have found than last Sunday’s rally in Paris? I was embarrassed and appalled by the absence of top-level American representation in Paris. It struck me as more than merely a missed opportunity; it was, to my mind, an insult to one of our country’s oldest allies.
Far from being a harsh critic of President Obama, I have been a loyal supporter, enthusiastically voting for his election and re-election, but for the life of me I can’t fathom how he could have failed to ensure that I and my fellow Americans were represented appropriately in Paris on this most solemn of occasions. I would have loved to see our President not only excoriate violence and defend our cherished right of free expression in Paris. I would also have welcomed his facilitating a discussion – as my colleague Dr. Luvelle Brown, Superintendent of the Ithaca, New York school system, suggested – of the importance of some degree of civility and respect in our exercise of that sacred right of unfettered speech. I’m not sure what the proper balance should be, but President Obama’s posing the question in Paris would certainly have stimulated thoughtful discussion.