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  • Obama supports foreign languages and has a foreign-sounding name; but as politicians go, that's not so unusual

    Conservative bloggers have been attacking Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama for advocating French and Spanish and for translating his campaign slogan, “Yes we can,” into Latin. Now Obama’s being attacked for a poster advertising a speech he’ll deliver in Berlin on Thursday, because part of the poster is in German.

     Poster announcing speech in Berlin

    Conservative bloggers seem to think that a speech in Germany ought to be advertised in English, not German. German seems so unpatriotic, and after all, we’re the ones who won the war.  

    Most candidates for national office communicate with the electorate in whatever languages can get them votes.  George W. Bush, who is a strong advocate of official English despite the fact that he can rarely get through a sentence in public without stumbling over some word or expression, campaigned for the presidency in Spanish and went so far as to sing patriotic American songs in Spanish.

     President Bush campaigned with a mariachi band 

    John McCain’s got a Spanish campaign website.  And Ralph Nader, who is running for president, also has some Spanish on his web site, plus he’s got a Spanish-surnamed running mate, Matt Gonzalez.

    Even so, Barack Obama is being criticized by conservatives for suggesting that learning foreign languages might actually be a good thing.

    Speaking in Powder Springs, Georgia, earlier this month, Sen. Obama reiterated his position that immigrants should learn English, adding,

    But instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English – they’ll learn English – you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language.

    Obama praised Europeans for their knowledge of multiple languages, and he lamented the fact that most Americans can only "go over to Europe, and all we can say is ‘merci beaucoup.’"

    You’d think that critics who object to Spanish or French might at least revere the classics. But Obama detractors howled with derision when the senator appeared in June, at a meeting of Democratic governors in Chicago, with a nameplate bearing the image of an American eagle and the Latin tag, vero possemus, a loose translation of the campaign slogan, “Yes we can.”

     Obama's vero possemus sign

    Late night comics reacted to Obama’s use of a presidential-like seal, what the New York Times called the Great Seal of Obamaland, by calling Obama the president presumptive.

    In advocating foreign language learning for Americans, Sen. Obama has taken an important stand on American educational priorities. He’s also suggested an important shift in American foreign policy: an acknowledgment that English-speakers aren’t the only people worth listening to.

    The fact that Sen. Obama doesn’t actually speak Spanish, French, Latin or German is no consolation to the conservatives who find the fact that he merely evokes these languages proof of his elitism. Real Americans, in their view, want semiautomatic weapons, not Latin slogans, German posters, or “Press ‘1’ for English,” thank you very much.

     Sen. Obama on French TV

    Without even a “merci beaucoup,” French for ‘thank you very much,’ Democratic presidential candidate Barak Obama tells a French television audience, in English, how he hopes to improve the international image of the U.S. It has become the fashion for American journalists to refer to Sen. Obama as the “presumptive Democratic nominee,” a phrase which, although it is accurate, since he has yet to be nominated, makes him sound too much like a pre-revolutionary French aristocrat – the real epitome of elitism – rather than the junior senator from Illinois.

    Imagine, in the age of increased educational accountability, criticizing a politician for daring to suggest that Americans learn even more. But what’s even odder to an old English teacher like me is the criticism that Sen. Obama has received for being eloquent in the language that he does speak, English. Obama may not be a polyglot, but even if they don’t agree with his ideas, many listeners think that his speeches have elevated American political discourse to levels unheard of since the days of Kennedy and Roosevelt, and he’s even mentioned in the same breath as Lincoln.

    Pres. Kennedy himself occasionally used other languages for effect, as in his famous 1963 remark near the Berlin Wall, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” a declaration that Kennedy likened to the Latin civis Romanus sum, ‘I am a citizen of Rome.’

    Jack Kennedy in Berlin in 1963

    Berliner can also refer to a jelly doughnut, but his German audience knew that Kennedy, who spoke in English, was talking about freedom, not pastry 

    It seems that German, once the most widely-spoken language other than English in the United States, even after it became the language of the enemy in two world wars, has once again become the language of the enemy, at least in right-wing circles for the duration of the present presidential campaign. And even though Sen. Obama will be speaking in English to Germans in Berlin this week, his critics want that speech to be advertised in English, because in their narrow view, English is the glue that holds together not just America, but the rest of the world as well.

    Not only do Sen. Obama’s critics deride his advocacy of foreign languages as unpatriotic, they have gone so far as to suggest that the senator’s first, last, and middle names are too foreign-sounding for him to serve as president.

    A list of past American presidents and vice presidents confirms that none of them had unusual or foreign-sounding names (except, of course, for Millard Fillmore, the Roosevelts, Spiro Agnew, Van Buren, Eisenhower, Alben Barkley, Ulysses, Schuyler, Franklin, Levi, Adlai, Woodrow, Elbridge, Lyndon, Quincy, Garrett, and possibly a few others). Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger, of California, and Rod Blagojevich, of Illinois, did not respond by press time to emails requesting comments on the appropriateness of candidates with foreign-sounding names.

    Maybe critics would be placated if Sen. Obama translated his name into something less obtrusive. George has been a popular presidential name from the get-go. So has John. There were several VPs named Charles. In 2007 a Washington Post writer suggested that Fred Thompson had a truly nondescript name, but while she was roundly attacked by the candidate's supporters, most voters couldn’t seem to get their minds around the idea of a president called “Fred.” 

    Fred might not work, but Sen. Obama could change his name to “Al.”  Or maybe not.  Having an American-sounding name may have given Al Gore an edge in 2000, but it cut no weight with the Supreme Court when they decided who should be president.

    Smith’s another quintessential American name, but Herbert Hoover defeated the all-American-named Al Smith two to one in the 1928 presidential race, and third-party candidate Norman Thomas, whose name sounds a little like Fred Thompson, barely got on the scoreboard that year.

    Perhaps, in the end, voters will make their decisions next Fall not on how the candidate’s names sound, or who’s got five-o’clock shadow on TV, but on their policies and abilities. In the mean time, is it too elitist to hope that we are returning to an era of campaign speeches that are actually well wrought and dynamically delivered?

     Richard Nixon during the Nixon-Kennedy debates 

    Some people said Richard Nixon’s 5 o’clock shadow cost him the presidency in 1960. Others thought it was lines like his 1973 quip, “I am not a crook,” that showed his true character.

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