Jeb Bush failed to impress with Berlin speech

When Barack Obama spoke in Berlin in 2008, one could see how and why he would get to be U.S. president. When Jeb Bush made his appearance here Tuesday, he showed how and why he probably won’t.

In 2008, a crowd of 200,000 gathered to hear Obama at the Victory Column in Tiergarten. He started by talking about his father, who herded goats in Kenya and yearned for the freedoms and opportunities of the West. It was an easy transition from there to Berliners’ own such yearnings, and to the U.S. airlift that kept West Berlin alive during the Soviet blockade.

Obama’s narrative was one of partnership: No amount of U.S. help would have worked without Germans’ determination, he said. His audience cheered; they could relate to that.

On Tuesday, Bush arranged to speak before a much smaller audience of about 1,000 suits at the annual business conference organized by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party. Bush also referred to his father. George H. W. Bush was no goatherd, but he is respected in Germany for helping to bring about the country’s reunification. For Bush senior’s second son, however, talking about the 41st U.S. president was a way of not bringing up the 43rd, his older brother.

“The Bush name now stands for loutishness and amateurism, as well as for the world where might makes right,” the business weekly Wirtschaftswoche wrote in advance of the Bush visit. Most Germans would agree.

Besides, more is now known of the elder Bush’s role in the events of the late 1980s, when the Eastern bloc started coming apart. His presidential archive contains records of his conversations with Merkel’s political mentor, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl. These show that Bush, like other politicians at the time, was swept along by the tide of events. Indeed, he wanted things to go slower. “We are getting criticism in the Congress from liberal Democrats that we ought to be doing more to foster change, but I am not going to go so fast as to be reckless,” he told Kohl in a phone conversation on October 23, 1989, after Kohl reported to him that events in East Germany were so dramatic he struggled to provide a prognosis.

So the audience applauded politely when Jeb Bush spoke of his father’s contribution to German history – and started drifting away. Recalling Bush’s coquettish remark at the beginning of his 30-minute appearance that he knew people had come to hear Merkel, not him, the daily Die Welt wrote that after he finished answering questions “more Christian Democrats came back into the hall. So Bush was right: The chancellor is perhaps more exciting.”

To anyone familiar with Merkel’s sedate, sensible public- speaking style, that line drips with sarcasm. Bush managed to outbore her. In the words of Hubertus Volmer, political commentator for the N-TV station, “he clings to the written text, which he reads hastily, and is anything but charismatic – a stark contrast not only with Obama in 2008 but also with Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, who spoke before him.”

And then there was the content of the speech. “The U.S. has to lead, and we have to do it in partnership with our allies,” Bush said. That’s different from Obama’s message of “building bridges,” and it’s hard to find people in today’s Germany, even among the safely conservative audience that Bush chose, who would publicly agree that America should lead and Germany should follow.

There were other things Bush said that grated. The audience murmured disapprovingly at his remark that one can “combat climate change a lot by hurting the economy.” His compliment to Merkel for her toughness on sanctions against Russia sounded like faint praise, once he warned against “tepid” reaction to President Vladimir Putin’s “bad behavior.” And his argument that the U.S. doesn’t do industrial espionage, because it doesn’t have state companies, fell on deaf ears. There’s a strong feeling in Germany that U.S. spying has gotten out of hand.

Bush can flatter German conservatives about their fiscal responsibility – something he said the U.S. could learn from – but he is well to the right of the political spectrum in Germany’s parliament. Because of that, coming to Berlin was probably a mistake for Bush. This may be a freedom-loving city, but it’s an awkward photo op for a U.S. conservative, even with a smiling Merkel in the frame. She manages a smile for Putin, too, after all.

Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.