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JANUARY 2, 2012 11:37AM

Wulff in sheep's clothing: Germany's presidential crisis

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...but how does he compare with America's candidates in 2012? 


President Wulff may be moving too

MY GIRLFRIEND AND I are moving to a new flat at the end of this month and it’s located dead-center between the palace of Germany’s Federal President and one of Berlin’s biggest, ugliest, and meanest prisons. If this juxtaposition might have seemed ironic just a few weeks ago, it is no longer, and if President Christian Wulff ends up leaving Bellevue Palace without doing time in Moabit Prison on his way back home, many Germans may start wondering why not.

According to the Basic Law of 1949, the office of Federal President is a purely ceremonial one. The President has no actual political authority, nor has he been elected by popular vote ever since Adolf Hitler gave Paul von Hindenburg a run for his money in the presidential election of 1932. Instead, the Federal President is the chief representative of the nation and serves as a “moral authority” – rather like the Queen of England – who is to stand above the normally dirty business of politics. That is why the job has traditionally gone to some of the nation’s most distinguished elder statesmen.

There is nothing particularly distinguished about Christian Wulff as a statesman. He isn’t even “elder.” Born in 1959, he studied law and worked his way up through the ranks of the conservative Christian Democratic Union before becoming minister president (i.e. governor) of the state of Lower Saxony in 2003. In Hanover, the name of this telegenic but not particularly inspiring professional politician soon started to circulate as a possible challenger to Chancellor Angela Merkel in a future election. Could this help explain why Merkel selected Christian Wulff of all people to succeed Federal President Horst Köhler after his unprecedented and still unexplained resignation in May of 2010? Honi soit qui mal y pense (“shamed be he who thinks evil of it”), as old King Edward used to say. In any case, Köhler won the vote in the Federal Assembly over former East German human rights activist and Stasi-hunter Joachim Gauck, a step the nation as a whole still regrets – today more than ever.

Wulff’s fall from grace has had little to do with his behavior during his brief tenure so far, but rather with his personal shenanigans as minister president in Hanover. Last month, news leaked out that in 2008 Wulff, who had recently remarried after an ugly divorce, had accepted a low-interest loan of half a million euros from a business associate in order to buy a house. Although he had already been asked about this in Hanover a few months before becoming Federal President, Wulff lied in the state parliament – or fudged, depending on your spin, since it later turned out he had really accepted the money from the businessman’s wife. The deal, which saved Wulff tens of thousands of euros in interest payments, clearly violates the law in Lower Saxony prohibiting politicians from accepting unauthorized gifts and sweetheart loans.

Joachim Gauck

Buyer's remorse: Wulff's competitor for the Federal Presidency, former East German Stasi-hunter, Joachim Gauck 

This comes on top of Wulff’s habit of accepting free vacations from millionaires. Under public pressure, his office released a list of six such luxury holidays at exclusive resorts and mansions between 2003 and 2010. In 2009, Wulff accepted a free First Class upgrade on a private Air Berlin flight to a millionaire’s villa in Florida. Add some questionable campaign financing issues and Wulff’s public sponsorship of a right-wing evangelical mission society into the equation, and you’ve got a president whose lease on Bellevue Palace is running out fast.

Now it turns out that Wulff personally called up Kai Diekmann, editor of BILD, Germany’s and Europe’s largest tabloid, last month to strong-arm him into covering up the private loan affair. (Amazingly, Wulff didn’t talk to Diekmann personally, but rather left a long and incendiary message on his voicemail.) It’s hard to imagine the president staying on after this bombshell. Of course, if he does leave after just a year and a half in office, he can expect a retirement package that's even sweeter than his dodgy house loan deal: His full salary of 200,000€ ($258,437) a year plus benefits along with a state-financed office, secretary, and driver for the rest of his days.

Christian and Bettina Wulff

First Couple: Christian and Bettina Wulff 

There is no question that this all adds up to a nasty scandal, but when I look at our own President and his challengers at the start of this election year, it’s hard for me to get excited about poor old Wulff and his airline seating arrangements. Let’s look at what has happened over the past couple of weeks in the United States: Just the day before yesterday, President Obama signed into a law the new National Defense Authorization Act, which grants the President power, by means of the armed forces, to detain any individual (including US citizens) “who was part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces,” under the law of war, “without trial, until the end of hostilities.” He can also try such persons in a military tribunal or provide for their “transfer to the custody or control of the person's country of origin,” or transfer to “any other foreign country, or any other foreign entity.”

So that’s what we’re facing in 2012 and, presumably, for all times: Martial law at the President’s – any President’s – pleasure. Also last month, presidential would-be Newt Gingrich claimed in an interview that the Palestinians are “an invented people” (sort of like hobbits, I guess) and are all “terrorists.” Since they are “invented,” they don’t even fall under the NDAA, but presumably may be erased at will. He also claimed the power to arrest Federal Judges he disagreed with. Then there is Rick Santorum, who said just yesterday on NBC’s Meet the Press that he would “bomb Iran” as a first resort upon becoming president. (Back in October, he told supporters: “On occasion, scientists working on the nuclear program in Iran turn up dead. I think that’s a wonderful thing, candidly.”)


I wonder how Gingrich feels about hobbits?

Somehow, I don’t think either of these characters would have to twist any editors’ arms too strongly to get away with what they appear determined to do. So these are what pass for "serious candidates" in today's America? Tell me it ain't so.

And as for Christian Wulff and his small-change monkeyshines: Buy that man another vacation!

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Sometimes I wonder if the United States is just Germany in 1932.
@old new lefty
If it is, I suggest you cast your vote for Hindenburg. Seriously, though, these guys talk as if they're running for Führer and not for POTUS.
Thanks for the local reporting Alan. That Wulff sounds like one of those dismal amoral types who give public office holders such a bad name. Isn't there any provision for scaling back his pension if he's forced to resign?

And good luck on the move.
Frau Merkel has apparently started a collection of presidents who wear out fast, which might damage her, too. It indeed was a pity that Herr Gauck lost the election then, although the ballot turned out surprisingly narrower than expected if I remember well. There is a call among German voters for "real people" with a real character rather than these professional political clones. However, from my own experience as a (basic) member of a political party, parties act as a filter and mostly let these clones reach the upper spheres. Other views rather get sorted out in the filtering process.

Maybe another presidential election in Berlin could and should bring forward some true and strong personality. It would not be the first time, if you think of Herr von Weizsäcker. However insignificant the office is as of real political power (although it allows to veto laws buy not signing them, as Herr Köhler did twice), the authors of the German "constitution" thought of it as a sort of a conscience above and beyond the political system and its subtle balances of power and less subtle horse trades. However, Frau Merkel prefers to pick up controllable candidates and rather seems to view the office as an early retirement.

Your international comparison is interesting. We can only marvel at the discourse of current Presidential candidates in Washington. Maybe there is a need, too, for some institution allowing elder US states(wo)men to act as a conscience from above the system "ex ante" instead of leaving that role to the Supreme Court "ex post". As long as the Koch brothers and their kin run the story from outside the political system, we have to expect more over-emotionalizing of political topics and more punch lines that read more like tabloid titles than like responsible states(wo)manship.
I just read about this in NYT and I did not know that the German President is ceremonial.

He seems rather bullheaded to leave a traceable message. Kinda a huge misstep and certainly in his governership he must of given indication of poor statesmanship, too. I guess the choices were very limited and he was the worst of the bad choices who'd hang himself and give Merkel time to line up another President.

As to stateside pollyticks. They just keep on sucking the blood from America's people, laws and political system. I predict in the next 20 years much worse situations that what we have now. It seems big pockets with dough run our land for first themselves and second for the pollytick who'll enact and obfuscate laws.

Rotten times at best. Sometimes I worry the EU will crash and then restart the US recession. Too bad there isn't RESET button like the old VHS.
Gingrich should keep in mind that he's one of the seven dwarfs. But then, as we well know, Walt Disney invented the Palestinians.
Wulff (not related) strikes back tonight on german TV, and hopes to stay on and finish his 5 years as President. His luck is that the opposition in Berlin is not really interested in getting rid of him, at least not before they can find a fitting candidate, and not before the elections in Schleswig-Holstein, which will tip the majority in the election assembly finally against the conservatives. Should Wulff fail it would be another shock for Merkel, because she handpicked the guy after her first President, Herr Koehler, resigned.