Pundits: Jelly Doughnuts for Brains?
We have seen that Pres. Kennedy's speech in Berlin received a tumultuous response, especially when he spoke his bits of German. The audio excerpt shows this quite clearly. On later reflection, he found the crowd reaction a little unsettling, and remarked that if he had asked the people to march to the Wall right then and there to tear it down, they probably would have. If anything, the people took him all too seriously.
We've also seen how utterly supercilious, condescending and wrong the New York Times writers and others were in predicting the President's actions on his trip and the European response to it. The old farts on the Times staff really stunk up the press room on that one. And these were their big names like Krock and Sulzberger. But perhaps the funniest boner was authored by Arthur J. Olsen, who had said in a June 21, 1963 Times news item that his sources ruled out "any possibility of a strong declaration of the United States and West German mutual interests during Mr. Kennedy's visit." Of course, the old men of the Times had a vested interest in trying to "push" the young President in this direction, as they had heartily endorsed his moves earlier that June in holding out an olive branch to Khrushchev. Pres. Kennedy then proceeds to Germany and declares "Ich bin ein Berliner!" It doesn't get any funnier than that. That line alone resulted in serious egg on the Times editorial facade. So perhaps it's a sore point. More on that in a moment.
There is a classic photo of Pres. Kennedy taken around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, where with his back to the camera he is standing up and leaning over his desk, seemingly with the weight of the world on his shoulders. In that particular shot he was actually reading a copy of the New York Times lying on the desk, open to the editorial page. He later remarked, "Arthur Krock has never had to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. He's only had to bear Arthur Krock."
And so it is with pundits in general. They don't even have to bear the weight of their own ephemeral baloney. The strategy: after totally getting something wrong just move on, continue the self-puffery, and hope nobody notices. After a while, when it's safe, start lying.
Now fast-forward twenty-five years later. The New York Times, perhaps feeling it was safe to come out again on the issue, published a story titled "I Am a Jelly-Filled Doughnut" (NYT, April 30, 1988, p. 31). The writer Kenneth O'Neill, with a straight face (presumably), declared, "To the Germans ['Ich bin ein Berliner'] meant 'I am a jelly doughnut.'" To O'Neill (and the Times' nervous revisionism), the tremendous cheer evident in the audio clip above was actually laughter as the Berliners "tittered among themselves" at a supposed grammatical faux pas. Their argument is tedious and juvenile, equivalent to, say, if Chancellor Adenauer had come to the United States and said "I am a New Yorker," and some imbecile had tittered "Hehehehe. He said he was a Chrysler automobile." You see, the article explained, a Berliner is also the name of a certain type of pastry. The correct way to say one is from Berlin is "Ich bin Berliner." With the indefinite article "ein" in front of "Berliner," the only way it's grammatical, according to this particular urban legend, is if it refers to the pastry. At this point the pundits can resume supercilious puffery and crank out pieces moaning about the state of knowledge of foreign languages in America, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Holy smokes! Do they expect to be taken seriously--especially when the Times writers make up outright lies about the German reaction, captured on tape for anyone to check? They perhaps realized that the pseudo-grammatical argument was a little thin, and therefore just lied and added the embellishment that the people "tittered among themselves." Well that proves it I guess. Newsweek also realized the need to make up such facts as they went along, saying in an October 8, 1990 article that the Berliners "chortled when John F. Kennedy proclaimed 'Ich bin ein Berliner': a 'berliner' with that ungrammatical 'ein,' is a common jelly roll."
Apparently in this orgy of self-congratulation for their new-found knowledge of German grammar none of these pundits felt it necessary to consult the video tapes or maybe take the extreme step of asking the opinion of some of the 400,000 Berliners that were there.
Jürgen Eichhoff writes in the Spring 1993 number of Monatshefte, an academic journal devoted to German language and culture published by the University of Wisconsin:
Of course, no one "tittered" or "chortled"; the situation was too tense for Berliners to be amused. What is more, every native speaker's Sprachgefül will tell that "Ich bin ein Berliner" is not only correct but the one and only correct way of expressing in German what the President intended to say.
Eichhoff explains that while the indefinite article 'ein' is dropped when someone is stating their place of origin or profession, it is used when the reference is metaphorical. His example:
Er ist Schauspieler. --He is an actor (by profession).
Er ist ein Schauspieler --He behaves like an actor.
Since Pres. Kennedy was clearly not literally from Berlin, but was expressing a metaphorical identity with Berliners, the second form is correct. Another example Eichhoff cites is the title of a book, Als ich ein Türk war. Reportagen, written by a German reporter who posed as a guest worker from Turkey while doing some investigative journalism.
Pres. Kennedy had also used the phrase "Laßt sie nach Berlin kommen" to great effect. According to Eichhoff:
Both sentences had been translated into German by... Robert Lochner, son of Associated Press correspondent Louis P. Lochner, who grew up in Berlin and received his Abitur from Dahlem Wald-Gymnasium.
Lachner provided translations of "I am a Berliner" and "Let them come to Berlin" for the speech, and Kennedy practiced the lines with Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt and Brandt's advisor Klaus Franke. Says Eichhoff:
With this array of native support, it is obvious why the President's German grammar could not be wrong. But what about the claim that the audience misunderstood the phrase because in German the word Berliner can denote a jelly-filled doughnut? This, of course, is total nonsense. In all languages, listeners derive the meaning of homonyms from the context in which they appear. What is more, there is no word Berliner meaning a 'jelly-filled doughnut' in the speech of Berlin or of all the eastern areas of Germany, for that matter... The word Berliner meaning a jelly-filled doughnut is used only along the Rhine river and in the northwestern and southern parts (including Switzerland) of the German speech area. The word of the entire eastern part, surrounding and including Berlin, is Pfannkuchen (which, to confuse outsiders, means 'pancake' to the west of this area). So for contextual reasons as well as for reasons of linguistic geography, there is not the slightest chance that anyone in the audience could have interpreted Berliner as denoting a jelly-filled doughnut. As a matter of fact, native Germans shake their heads in disbelief, unable to see a point, when told the "Kennedy-got-it-all-wrong" story.
As stated, the German reaction to this canard is similar to a hypothetical situation where an American is told "I am a New Yorker" means "I am a car." Uh, yeah. The only interesting aspect of this grammatical tempest in a teapot is what it reveals about the pundits and their inferiority complexes which Pres. Kennedy apparently continues to stimulate. They must prove that the "young man," "who talks well but hasn't the will to follow through on the vital decision," who is all style and no substance, etc. etc., actually doesn't even measure up to some hack writer who time has passed by. Just let them "explain" it all to you.