"Eat More Pretzels!"

Herr Bush Ist Kein Berliner

Reuters, May 22, 2002

Glory Days Gone for U.S. Presidents in New Berlin

BERLIN (Reuters) - When President John F. Kennedy visited West Berlin in 1963, schools and factories closed, streets filled with cheering and flag-waving Berliners, and zookeepers even held up chimpanzees to see him.

U.S. presidents used to be so popular in this once-divided city that, according to White House folklore, they would pay a visit to Berlin whenever they wanted a brief respite from domestic troubles.

President Bush, the seventh U.S. president to visit Berlin since World War Two, will find no such relief when he arrives in Berlin Wednesday evening for a 20-hour stay that starts a six-day tour of Europe.

On the eve of the visit, tens of thousands of demonstrators protested against a possible U.S. attack on Iraq as well as Washington's policies on trade, the environment and the Middle East. They were set to take to the streets again Wednesday.

Protesters gave a foretaste Tuesday of the welcome Bush can expect, marching through eastern Berlin chanting "Yankee go home." One banner urged him to "eat more pretzels," referring to an incident last year when Bush choked on a pretzel and fell.

Authorities fear a hard core of anti-globalization activists could incite the kind of violence that hit the Group of Eight summit in Genoa last year, where one man was shot dead.

It used to be different. The Berlin Wall gave successive U.S. presidents a perfect backdrop to boast of their role as protectors of the free world.

American embassy officials in Berlin said they were unaware of any other foreign city visited by so many American presidents during the last 50 years.

Kennedy's sentence "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner) inspired successive presidents to seek similarly punchy statements during their visits, sometimes uttered in German.

Jimmy Carter opted for a rhyme during a 1978 visit when he told cheering crowds in German: "Was immer sei, Berlin bleibt frei," or "No matter what, Berlin will always remain free."

Ronald Reagan stuck to English in 1987, when he exhorted President Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear town this wall."


But Berlin has changed since the Wall fell in 1989 and Germany was reunited in 1990. Bush's visit shows problems in a transatlantic relationship no longer cemented by the Cold War.

Tourists have trouble finding the few stretches of the Wall left standing, and the ex-Communist heirs to the party that built it share power in the city government.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder moved to avoid diplomatic embarrassment by reportedly persuading Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit to cancel a trip to Australia during Bush's stay.

Had Wowereit gone, the city would have been represented by his deputy Gregor Gysi, a prominent member of the reform communist Party of Democratic Socialism.

Many West Berliners are dismayed by the frosty reception their city is giving the leader of a country that protected them for decades.

"I cannot understand these Berliners protesting. They should look in their history books and see everything the United States has done for us," said 16-year-old Niels Mrozynski, taking part in a small pro-Bush rally Tuesday.

Many remember the 1948 airlift during which American and British planes brought food into the city after Soviet forces cut off ground routes into the area.

Despite the expected frosty reception, Bush is honoring the city by starting his tour of Russia, France and Italy here, and by holding his only major speech of the tour before German lawmakers in the Reichstag parliament building.

In a further gesture, he will be the first U.S. president to reside in the former Communist eastern part of the city.

He will stay in the luxury Adlon hotel, restored after unification in 1990 to its pre-war glory, from where he will have a view of the city's landmark Brandenburg Gate.

The Gate itself is being restored and is covered by a giant advertising hoarding which, to honor Bush, bears a photomontage of the Gate with the White House behind it.

Andreas Etges, organising an exhibition on Kennedy's visit at a Berlin museum, said the fall of the Wall marked the end of the special ties between the city and U.S. presidents.

"America simply isn't so important any more as a protective power," he said.

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