I know it sounds worn-out and cheesy, but it’s true. Watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon as the first human was a formative childhood experience that made me want to move from Germany to the United States of America. Equally inspiring and a bit embarrassing to admit was another experience, also in 1969 and in front of the same black and white TV: watching Richard Nixon walk to the podium of the Bundestag in Bonn and deliver a speech to the West-German Parliament.
Sounds strange? What was so impressive about Richard Nixon that a 10-year-old kid in Germany reserved a whole page in his stamp album for a commemorative card with a presidential photo postmarked Feb. 26, 1969? Very simple — compared to the stuffy German politicians at the time, Nixon came across as a true entertainer and master of self-deprecation, an art form of seduction not widely employed in my home country back then. He was all smiles, witty and easygoing, and he made jokes about his lack of foreign-language skills. That picture of Nixon, the great communicator, stuck in my mind for years even after getting up in the middle of the night five years later to watch his resignation speech (still on the same black-and-white German TV).
Today, courtesy of Google, I no longer have to rely on blurry TV screens and childhood memories. Instead I can pull up the verbatim record of that 1969 Bundestag session on my laptop. Which is what I did the other day. Reading the transcript felt like taking a peek into a long-lost era when wars were cold, speeches uninflated and U.S. presidents applauded when they traveled abroad. Nixon was the first American president, in fact the first foreign head of state, to speak in front of the Bundestag but was smart enough to stay away from any “America First” propaganda. He mentioned the U.S. only once, but the word “alliance” occurred five times in a talk that lasted less than 10 minutes. What did Nixon consider his greatest honor on that day in 1969? To speak, as a former congressman and senator, to his “fellow legislators” in Germany. Well, that view of course changed, and he became less enthusiastic about talking to his fellow legislators at home when they began to impeach him.
Otherworldly saviors like God or Jesus had no business in Nixon’s manuscript. This gives it a refreshingly secular look, particularly in today’s environment where most speeches are dripping with tacky religious bravado. Just listen to the two Mikes (Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo) who share the prize for most obnoxious evangelical zealotry in the Trump administration. Even Ronald Reagan, who was the second U.S. president to speak in front of the German Bundestag, couldn’t help it and had to invoke the Psalmist in his fight against the godless communists and their evil empire.
That was in 1982, and my parents had just bought their first color TV. Reagan spoke five times as long as Nixon and was waxing lyrical about the German people, who had “to live in the gale of intimidation that blows from the east.” His speechwriters must have thought that mentioning German poets is a good strategy for making friends in the Bundestag and peppered the manuscript with quotes from Heinrich Heine. They obviously missed the fact that Heine was Karl Marx’s cousin, both biologically and politically, and throughout his life on the side of the poor and exploited. Heine would have been spinning in his grave at the thought of being called upon to support the inventor of trickle-down economics.
Thirteen years earlier and on the same podium, Nixon wisely stayed away from quoting authors he had never heard of and called the Soviet Union, in true realpolitik fashion, “those who have been our opponents.” Reagan talked about America as the “shining city on a hill” and made the use of “great” between “our” and “nation” mandatory. Still, this sounds humble and modest compared with the current administration, which has taken boasting, bluster and off-putting patriotism to previously unimagined levels of absurdity.
I wonder what lasting childhood memories today’s 10-year-olds across the globe will take away from watching President Donald Trump speak and tweet. One thing I know for sure: Unlike with me in 1969, it won’t make them want to move to the United States.
Henning Schroeder is a former vice provost and dean of graduate education at the University of Minnesota. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @HenningSchroed1.