Was Jimmy Carter too honest as President

When Jimmy Carter visited Berlin in 1978 : During the presidential office hour

When the former US President Barack Obama comes to Berlin now, he will also want to speak to citizens. He invites you to a “Town Hall Meeting” on Saturday - in keeping with American tradition: 300 young people from all over Europe are allowed to ask him questions. This is still unusual for German standards. But it is not the first time that such a citizens' meeting has taken place here.

It was the American President Jimmy Carter who answered questions from Berliners invited on July 15, 1978. At that time, visits by heads of state from the Western Allies were considered an important political statement. The visit of John F. Kennedy in the summer of 1963, in particular, has written itself deeply into the collective memory of the city. At the personal request of Jimmy Carter, however, the dramaturgy of his stay in Berlin deviated from the famous model: He insisted on a town hall meeting. It was the first time that an American president outside the United States invited to such a “citizens' forum”.

It has been a central part of American democracy since the 18th century. Citizens gather - not necessarily in the town hall, although the name suggests it - and discuss current issues, political representatives answer questions from their electorate.

The Senate fears that "the poor lunatics" will come out of the citizens' consultation hour

When Jimmy Carter planned to export the format to West Berlin, there were also critical voices. The "Spiegel" commented slightly duped that the status of the "metropolis on the Spree" apparently corresponds to that of "American provincial nests" and is now "on an equal footing with Clinton (Massachusetts), 13,300 inhabitants, and Yazoo City (Mississippi), 11,732 inhabitants" . An employee of the US State Department complained about his colleagues in the White House: "People have not understood that Berlin is abroad."

Those responsible for planning were skeptical, especially because of the spontaneous nature of such an event. The USA refused, however, to specifically select the participants and to define the questions. In the Senate it was feared, according to the "Spiegel", that "all the poor lunatics will come who keep pushing their way into our citizens' consultation hour". Carter's staff considered cultural differences to be the cause of the concern: Germans would find asking questions disrespectful.

The organizers finally tried to attract a benevolent audience through a clever invitation policy. The invited citizens consisted mainly of the participants in the “Friendship Force” exchange program, which the wife of the US President had launched. In addition, places were arranged through the political parties, churches and trade unions, the Luftbrückendank Foundation and the John F. Kennedy School, among others. Quite a few West Berliners criticized the procedure and asked by letter to be invited as well.

East Berlin is also preparing: it whitewashes the wall white

Several German-American working groups discussed the details of the Berlin visit in advance. In particular, the open car tour, which has been popular since Kennedy's visit, was discussed intensively for safety reasons. Only two days before the visit did the West Berliners find out that Carter would also drive along Kurfürstendamm. The President's specially secured limousine was flown in. At the request of the Senate, the Allies ordered a 24-hour ban on meetings; no printed matter was allowed to be distributed or “sound-amplifying devices” were to be used. Even East Berlin took part in the preparations: on the morning of July 15, 1978, the wall at Potsdamer Platz was whitewashed. West Berlin police patrol cars and British soldiers secured the apron, while GDR border troops tried to erase evidence of the fate of an East German conscientious objector.

In the early afternoon, at 2 p.m., the President arrived at Tempelhof Airport. His first stop was the Airlift Memorial. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Soviet blockade, he took part in a funeral ceremony in memory of those pilots who died in the airlift. Carter signed the city's gold book and gave a brief address.

Controversial in US staff: should Carter quote Marlene Dietrich?

In the run-up to this, his speechwriters had recommended that he also speak a few German words, based on Kennedy's “Ich bin ein Berliner”: “If we try to match that, it could be gimmicky. If we don't try, we might appear unimaginative. ”They tested the title of the song“ I still have a suitcase in Berlin ”by Marlene Dietrich on some Germans and found that it would be a“ big hit ”. However, the suggestion was deleted with the comment “too much”. Carter's speech ended with the sentence “Whatever, Berlin stays free”.

Then the column of 25 vehicles drove to the wall at Potsdamer Platz. After a 10-minute stay, we went on to the congress hall. Here, Mr. and Mrs. Carter were allowed to take a break before the Town Hall meeting began.

As a greeting, Carter praised the courage that the West Berliners had shown in their “besieged outpost” during the blockade. He quoted US President Harry Truman, who on March 21, 1949 before the United States Conference of Mayors had seen the behavior of West Berliners during the blockade as evidence of the strength of the democratic spirit. Ernst Reuter was in the audience at the time. The unifying element of these two speeches was the special relationship established by the Airlift between the USA and West Berlin, which made it seem neither unusual for a Berlin mayor to attend the meeting of his American colleagues, nor for an American President in West Berlin held a citizens' meeting.

One question: what is Carter's daughter's pocket money?

Following Carter's short speech, the audience was able to ask questions - they ranged from the amount of pocket money the president's daughter received, through the Four Power Agreement and the phenomenon of Eurocommunism, to nature conservation and energy supply. The question of the pensioner Irmgard Hiege was momentous. She wanted to know why no more was being done to develop personal relationships between the people of Berlin and the soldiers of the Western Allies. Carter admitted he couldn't answer this, but promised to stand up for it.

Immediately afterwards he asked the Governing Mayor Dietrich Stobbe to investigate the question. Thereupon a hectic hustle and bustle began in the Senate Chancellery, because the woman had touched a sore spot. In fact, the commitment had waned. On the one hand, the presence of the Western allies had become a matter of course, and on the other hand, the American “protecting power” had lost its popularity due to the Vietnam War. Fear of a Soviet attack had diminished as a result of the political rapprochement between East and West and criticism of the Allied presence grew. Due to a cultural change, it was possible to make less and less political capital from public appearances with representatives of the military.

Carter sits on the roof of his car

After leaving the congress hall, the president's motorcade drove over Kurfürstendamm to Tempelhof. The tour through the city center, which was almost canceled from the program, was a complete success. Carter was celebrated by around 150,000 spectators, as the Tagesspiegel reported. “A dense line of often ten to fifteen rows of people on both sides was the atmospheric highlight of this visit. The column made slow progress. Carter sat on the roof of his car for a while and waved back to the Berliners, who waved their flags and shouted their sympathy. “Ten press buses ensured that the pictures were carried around the world. The US President left the city at 6:40 p.m. with a significant delay.

In retrospect, Carter's visit makes it clear that West Berlin was in a time of upheaval: on the one hand, new forms of staging of friendship were sought, on the other hand, the city's pro-American self-image was retained. When Richard Nixon traveled to the Spree in February 1969, young people protested against the war in Vietnam and the oppression of the Afro-American population. However, the presence of Carter hardly heated Berlin's minds. Only when Ronald Reagan visited the Walled City in 1982 and 1987 did mass demonstrations and riots break out.

While Kennedy had cited West Berlin in his speech as proof that one could not work with communists, Carter now interpreted the city as a symbol of the success of the policy of détente. With regard to the programming, too, Carter's visit marked a break: he was the last US President to take a bath in an open car in the Berlin crowd and to this day he remains the only one who held a town hall meeting here.

The author is a historian at the Center for Research on Contemporary History in Potsdam.

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