Obama weighs in on the Great Wall
By Andrew Higgins
BEIJING -- President Obama trekked to the Great Wall on Wednesday and ran the gantlet that torments all U.S. presidents when they visit China: what does the world's most powerful man say about one of mankind's most awe-inspiring monuments?
"It's majestic," declared Obama, according to a pool report, before he flew off to South Korea, the final stop of his eight-day Asian tour. "It reminds you of the sweep of history, and that our time here on Earth is not that long, so we better make the best of it." Wire services quoted the president as saying, "It's magical."
In any case, his comments fell short of the best-known line in wall-related presidential oratory -- Ronald Reagan's 1987 appeal to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall."
But that was the Berlin Wall, and no U.S. president had come up with anything like it when faced with the Great Wall of China.
When Richard Nixon traveled to Beijing in 1972, he made history by meeting Mao Zedong but tumbled into the mundane when he went to the wall. "It sure is a Great Wall," Nixon declared.
Nor did George W. Bush have much success finding words to match the moment. On his own trip to the Great Wall in 2002, Bush lingered only 25 minutes, signed the guest book and then uttered a line that made his handlers cringe: "Let's go home."
Obama, wearing a black jacket and hatless despite the freezing cold, stayed only a few minutes longer than Bush at a structure that for centuries has symbolized China's wariness of foreigners. His visit Wednesday to the Badaling section of the Great Wall lasted about half an hour -- about as long as it took him to finish a speed-tour of the Forbidden City on Tuesday.
Though built to keep out foreigners, the Great Wall now pulls in tourists, as well as leaders from around the world. More than 450 foreign heads of state and government have made the trip. The base of the wall now features a Starbucks and a KFC, both closed Wednesday for Obama's visit, along with dozens of souvenir stalls and Chinese restaurants.
Obama's trip was the final event of a two-and-a-half-day visit to China that began with the president taking a kick at another wall -- a system of Internet censorship known as the Great Firewall of China. "I'm a big supporter of noncensorship," Obama told Chinese students in Shanghai on Monday.
It wasn't as direct as Reagan's message to Gorbachev in Berlin, but it was still a rebuke to China's ruling Communist Party during a visit otherwise marked by effusive courtesy. This continued Wednesday on the Great Wall, where Obama declared "great admiration for Chinese civilization."
Unlike its modern-day electronic equivalent, the original Great Wall never really worked very well as a defensive line. It was repeatedly breached. Work on it started more than 2,000 years ago, but most of what stands today dates from the Ming Dynasty, which itself collapsed in 1644 when Manchu horsemen thundered through an open gate and rode on to capture Beijing.
With a decision on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan looming when he gets back to Washington, Obama seemed to find solace in a fortification that, though a military flop, has become an emblem of one of the world's oldest and most enduring civilizations.
"It gives you a good perspective on the fact that a lot of the day to day things that we worry about don't amount to much compared to the sweep of history," Obama said.
But it was hardly an occasion for solitary reflection. Also at the wall were a swarm of Chinese police, American Secret Service agents, Chinese escorts -- including Beijing's ambassador to Washington -- and a host of White House staffers, among them senior White House adviser David M. Axelrod.
Axelrod, who didn't make the steep climb up a section of the wall viewed by the president, struck a Nixonian note in his own description of the ancient fortification. "It's a great wall," he told reporters.
Washington Post Editor
November 18, 2009; 10:37 AM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency , Obama Abroad
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