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Time has taken its toll on President Obama and UN General Assembly hall
UNITED NATIONS (AP) ' The decades have not been kind to the design and decor of the U.N. General Assembly, a grand hall that has seen its share of history and histrionics. Nor have the years been kind to President Barack Obama's star power, which also seems to have faded slightly over time.
Obama, defending his opposition to a Palestinian plan to seek statehood Friday to the skeptical members of the General Assembly, received a polite reception, but there was little enthusiasm as he explained ' without using the word veto ' why the United States would not back the proposal.
His comments on the Palestinian-Israel conflict dampened the mood moments after he cited a series of UN-backed successes in the last year, including the intervention in Libya and the support for people-powered uprisings that toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and brought to power the democratically elected president of Ivory Coast after a violent struggle.
"This is how the international community should work," he said in front of a standing-room-only audience. But the buoyant mood flattened when he said peace between the Israelis and Palestinians was only possible with direct negotiations, not UN declarations.
"That's not true," muttered one woman sitting near the press gallery as Obama explained the various security threats Israel faces.
Unlike Obama, who spoke without being interrupted by applause, the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, was interrupted by handclapping when she pointed out that she was the first female head of state to open the General Assembly debate, and again when she embraced the cause of Palestinian statehood.
The presence of Obama and other leaders turned the General Assembly hall into the world's focal point, at least few hours. It was protected by a wide-ranging security operation: Coast Guard and police vessels established a no-go zone in the East River, and trucks filled with sandbags blocked access of most major streets leading to UN headquarters.
The UN General Assembly is always a migraine for New Yorkers. Traffic snarls and "frozen zones" where even pedestrians are kept from crossing the street make shopping or getting to work a daily challenge. Hair-triggered New Yorkers like to complain on the street about "him" ' they are angry at President Obama not for his politics (well, that too), but for the impressive gridlocks his motorcades bring.
"It's killing us," said a waiter at the Palm Too, where diners could not easily get to the steakhouse for a $49 filet mignon when the area was locked down yet again so Obama could move through. "We've only got three people here."
There were three sets of security sweeps for journalists, diplomats and activists hoping to get into the hall to watch the proceedings live.
It was humid and foggy outside, adding to the foul mood of motorists and pedestrians, but inside the General Assembly the air conditioning hummed perfectly, so the men (almost all in dark blue suits, most with red ties) and women (including many in colorful dresses and fanciful hats) could mingle in comfort.
For visitors walking into the room for the first time, there was a strong sense of having been there before ' television has brought this podium, with its green marble backdrop, into hundreds of millions of living rooms for more than half a century. The only surprise is how familiar it feels.
The gold tinted, inverted-funnel shape of the dome still looks good, but the abstract art on the sides does not stand up well, looking somewhat like expanding amoebas or a sanitized version of the raunchy Rolling Stones logo, and the two large video screens diminish what was planned to be a dignified, panoramic view of the podium.
The green carpets and green table tops have a faded marathon poker game feel, but the simple brown-and-white nameplates identifying each delegation give the room its sparkle, and its meaning: Only here does Lesotho sit next to Liberia, adjacent to Libya (new personnel there) and miniscule Leichenstein.
Only at this once-a-year gathering do heads of state gather on these terms, free to shoot the breeze with each other in private, trading tidbits on economics or sports or that nice new bistro on nearby Second Avenue.
No one seemed to mind the delays that seemed built in to the process. Talking about nothing in particular seemed more natural than talking about world peace, even in a tumultuous year that has brought change to key parts of the globe.
The translation system, which relies on an awkward plastic earpiece and a bulky switch that tends to fall apart when the user changes channels, has a definite 1960s feel, but still works, to a degree bridging the language gap.
One message was made clear from the podium before the debates began: You aren't supposed to cheer your favorites when they are speaking. High school debating rules are supposed to prevail, at least when it comes to public demonstrations of support.
But this warning was routinely ignored ' except in Obama's case, when decorum prevailed.