24 Jul Who Attended Obama’s Speech in Berlin? (Hint: Not US Diplomats!)
I was struck by this piece tucked away in today’s Washington Post, noting that Pat Kennedy, Under Secretary for Management at the State Department, had to remind diplomatic personnel in Germany that they were prohibited from attending Barack Obama’s speech today in Berlin. It is a mark of just how unprecedented Obama’s current overseas visit is, mixing as it does official travel as a U.S. Senator with travel that is funded and staffed by his campaign. When I was in the Foreign Service, I never had to face this question. (I worked on President Clinton’s 1994 state visit to Berlin — which included a speech at the Brandenburg Gate.) The general rule for U.S. personnel overseas is an absolute prohibition on partisan activities. As explained in the article, the Hatch Act restrictions that apply to U.S. Government personnel stateside are more permissive than the Foreign Affairs Manual’s prohibition:
AFSA [American Foreign Service Association] representatives met with Kennedy and State Department legal representatives Tuesday after two unnamed embassy employees complained to the union that the prohibition — in an internal statement issued after some stationed there had asked about attending the rally — violated their civil rights.
Kennedy cited section 4123.3 of the third volume of the lengthy manual of personnel regulations for the Foreign Service, which says: “A U.S. citizen employee, spouse, or family member shall not engage in partisan political activities abroad.”
In the interview, Kennedy described the regulation as “a standing policy,” although he acknowledged that “I don’t believe we’ve ever had to interpret this before. None of us thinking about this could come up with a precedent” for the Obama campaign rally.
He said that despite the manual’s prohibition on “spouses and family members,” the departmental interpretation was that only Foreign Service members were barred from attending the event.
Given that last comment permitting family members to attend, and the fact that German nationals employed by the embassy are not under the same prohibition as US citizen employees, the diplomatic personnel who raised the issue will have lots of first-person reports to fall back on.
I haven’t had a chance to read the full transcript yet, but I hear that Obama resisted the urge to toss in a German phrase or two. Very smart move. Setting aside the obvious glee with which Obama’s political opponents would replay clips of Obama speaking German (sigh), there is always the risk of getting it wrong. President Clinton, who studied German in college and was comfortable uttering a few phrases auf Deutsch, included the phrase “Alles ist moeglich; Berlin ist frei!” (anything is possible; Berlin is free!) in his 94 speech. It seemed a nice rhetorical flourish and innocent enough. Only problem was, the tagline for a Toyota radio and television spot airing at the time included “Alles ist moeglich!” That fact, lost on the U.S. and international press corps, became a cheeky sub-theme in the press coverage in Germany, much to the chagrin of everyone who worked to make the speech — the first by a US president in reunified Berlin — a signal moment in Clinton’s transatlantic policy.