BERLIN--Barack Obama wandered back into the press cabin of his chartered campaign plane early this morning and shared some thoughts about the speech he will give tonight and other aspects of his trip to Europe and the Middle East.
The charter was parked at the Tel Aviv airport awaiting departure for Germany. Obama had just arrived after a pre-dawn visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where he was greeted by a lone, but loud and persistent, heckler. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee described the scene at Judaism's holiest site as a bit "rowdy," adding, "I was expecting more reverence."
Obama had gone to the site in the Old City shortly after 5 a.m., and was escorted across the ancient plaza by the Rabbi of the Wall, Shmuel Rabinovich. As the rabbi read from Psalm 122, "A Song of Ascents of David," a man standing nearby yelled repeatedly: "Obama, Jerusalem is not for sale! Obama, Jerusalem is not for sale."
"I rejoiced with those who said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the Lord,'" read the Rabbi. "Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem."
When the prayer was concluded, Obama placed a personal note in a crack between the large stones in the wall, as is the custom, placed his hand on the wall and bowed his head, standing quietly. He told reporters on the plane later that Rabbi Rabinovich had presented him with the gift of a large book chronicling the history of the wall, a remnant of the Temple Mount that dates back about 2,000 years.
A reporter asked Obama if he wanted to share with others his prayer at the wall. He declined.
Conversation quickly turned to the candidate's new plane, which was recently reconfigured to include spacious swivel chairs in Obama's cabin, business-class seats for the staff in the second section, and two more sections with standard three-across seats on either side of the aisle.That's where the reporters get to sit.
"It's crowded. It's packed," Obama said, commenting on the full load of staff, reporters, TV crews and Secret Service who are traipsing around with him this week. When a reporter noted that Obama's cabin was far more spacious, he laughed. "I'm not going to lie to you guys. But listen, I suffered in these seats for an ample amount of time... My legs kept bumping up in the original configuration."
Reporters offered no sympathy. "You're not going to let us take turns in your Baraclounger, are you?" one asked.
Obama promised to bring reporters up to his cabin at some point--but not right that minute. "I'm sleeping right now, so you're not allowed," he said.
Obama said he's not gotten much shut-eye since leaving Washington a week ago. He showed his fatigue last night, as he scurried from meeting to meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Israel and the West Bank. According to one pool report, he was overheard telling former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyhu, "I could sleep standing up."
I ran into Obama as he was leaving the King David Hotel for a dinner last night and asked him how he was feeling. "I'm a little beat, but I'm doing all right," he said.
By this morning, when we arrived in Berlin, Obama had caught some more shut-eye and looked fresher. He said he has found himself waking up in the middle of the night during the trip, because his body clock had not adjusted to the time zone changes. Israel and Jordan are seven hours ahead of Washington, for example, and Berlin is six hours ahead.
Someone mentioned to Obama that a number of reporters had not had any sleep overnight because of their 3:45 a.m. departure from the King David hotel for the Tel Aviv airport. "The difference though is, sort of mid- afternoon, you're not in middle of some briefing . . . as it catches up to you," Obama said.
He will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel before his public address in Tiergarten Park, which is scheduled for about 1:15 p.m. Washington time.
Although the German government scuttled an early proposal for Obama to speak at Brandenburg Gate, where Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan made famous appearances, the Illinois senator will be sleeping quite near that location. The candidate's hotel stands adjacent to the historic landmark in Berlin.
Aboard his plane early this morning, someone asked what was the high point of the trip so far. "This," Obama deadpanned, referring to his 15-minute appearance in the back cabin with reporters. "I had to earn it," he said. "I said, 'When do I get a chance to go back and talk to the press?' "
Amid laughter, he was asked for his second-favorite moment. He paused.
"You know I really get a kick out of spending time with the troops. Their morale is high, but they really appreciate acknowledgement of what they're doing," Obama said. "You know, everywhere we went in Afghanistan and Iraq they were just really eager to tell their story, what they were doing. And it was moving. And it's neat to see the mix. You have a bunch of 20-year olds and then you'll get a 40-year old or 50-year old who's in the Guard; a Missouri banker who's helping to try to set up a agricultural project. You know, that's pretty spectacular."
Very few of the troops wanted to talk politics, Obama said, other than to inquire what life on the trail is like. Did he think the troops gave him an honest assessment of the situation in the war zones? "I think if you get them outside of earshot of their commanding officers or, you know, whoever they're reporting to, and I think a lot of times you do," he said.
Obama expressed some frustration at how difficult it is to talk with ordinary Iraqis when visiting the country. "That's the tough thing about the war zones, you just, you can't talk to the local population," he said. "It's just too controlled." He added that some sheiks and regional officials were closer to the ground and "gave you a better sense of how ordinary Iraqis are thinking about it."
He said his visit to Iraq was the first chance he had for a small-group conversation with Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces there. He called Petraeus "a very smart guy," "an extremely capable person" and someone he could work with--even though Petraeus disagrees with Obama's plan to get combat forces out within 16 months if he is president.
Obama also had high praise for Ambassador Ryan Crocker, calling him "a real unsung hero" in Iraq. "Very savvy but incredibly humble and self-effacing," he said.
Obama recoiled when a reporter asked whether the Berlin speech was really going to draw a million people, as some reports have estimated. Other estimates have put the number at 100,000. "Let's tamp down expectations here," he said.
He said his staff had just informed him that the space in Tiergarten Park was much larger than he originally realized, and joked that he might have to spend the afternoon hours in Germany trying to build an ample crowd.
"This is one of those where we really have no idea what's going to happen. It's sort of a crapshoot. I'm happy with the speech though," he said..
Initially, Obama balked at talking to us about the speech, but he eventually relented. "It's not a wonkish policy speech," he said.
Obama's aides went to great lengths to say the speech event was not a campaign event. Obama said it was not a political rally "in the sense it's not designed to get them to the polls."
"Hopefully it will be viewed as a substantive articulation of the relationship I 'd like to see between the United States and Europe," he said.
What about the audience back home? "I'm hoping to communicate across the Atlantic the value of that relationship and how we need to build on it," he said.
He was asked whether he saw parallels between the his speech and those given by Kennedy and Reagan. "They were presidents," he said. "I am a citizen." But he said the selection of Berlin as the site of the speech was a reflection of the city's history-shaping role.
"There's no doubt that part of what I want to communicate on both sides of the Atlantic is the enormous potential of us restoring a sense of coming together," he said.
Was the speech is one aspect of proving himself as a presidential candidate? "No," he replied. "I'm just giving a speech."