Germany's former First Couple,
Christian and Bettina Wulff
MY NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOR IS moving out the same week I’m moving in. There’s nothing remarkable about that, particularly when the neighbor in question happens to be the Federal President of Germany and has been absorbing political attacks for weeks. For Berliners, President Wulff’s resignation this morning is overdue, and has felt like waiting for one’s upstairs neighbor to drop the other shoe.
President Wulff, who replaced President Horst Köhler following the latter’s own sudden resignation in May of 2010, has been dodging corruption charges since last December, when the influential Bild tabloid reported that Wulff had accepted a low-interest loan to the sum of over half a million euros for the purchase of a private home while serving as minister president (governor) of Lower Saxony (I wrote about it HERE). It turned out he had subsequently lied about the affair in front of the state legislature in Hanover. As Wulff tried to wiggle himself out of a full accounting of just what his millionaire benefactor hoped to gain from this sweetheart deal (and also threatened the editor of Bild via voicemail), the charges just kept coming. Most of them dealt with private vacations that jet-setting Christian and Bettina Wulff took on the property of some of their wealthy friends. Further accusations arose about improper conduct relating to campaign financing, support for various political initiatives, and travel expenses Wulff arranged for a filmmaker friend.
Once the snowball had started rolling down the hill, journalists started digging up seemingly trivial matters, such as Wulff’s use of a brand-new Audi car and even his borrowing of an associate’s cell phone. Soon his attractive wife was the target of investigations into her allegedly illegal acceptance of designer clothing and her own potentially chequered past as a high-end call girl – a claim that has never been proven, but that has been titillating bloggers for months now.
If these charges appear trivial to many people inside and outside of Germany (I mean, one of our own presidential candidates, Rick Santorum, is publicly talking about bombing Iran and banning contraceptives, while our Current Occupant regularly murders people from the air in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other countries), their cumulative impact is devastating: Christian Wulff comes off looking like a corrupt politician with no business residing in Bellevue Palace.
Actually, Wulff has only himself to blame. Karma is a bitch, and all his earlier claims of high principles and the need to avoid even the slightest hint of impropriety in politics have caught up with him in full.
When the Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Hanover filed an application to suspend Wulff’s immunity from prosecution this week, the President finally took action. In an appearance at 11 a.m. today he briefly announced his resignation, effective immediately. He stated that he while he had made mistakes in office, he had always acted “correctly,” and he was certain that he would be exonerated following the conclusion of all ongoing investigations.
The Federal Assembly, Germany’s Electoral College, must meet to appoint a new president within the next thirty days. Of course, everyone’s first reaction has been to speculate on Wulff's successor. So far, a list of usual suspects has been presented, including two women – Ursula von der Leyen, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, and the Green politician Kathrin Göring-Eckardt, vice president of the Bundestag – but in my opinion none of these figures has the format Germans so sadly missed in the last two occupants of Bellevue Palace. But perhaps we're all asking the wrong question. The German presidency is a largely symbolic office, but just what does it symbolize? It could be, as some are saying, that, in a stable twenty-first century democracy, the days of the pseudo-kaiser that the Federal President was designed to impersonate have come to an end, and good riddance too.
Personally, I’m sad to see the Wulffs go, particularly since we never did get a chance to invite them over for tea and crumpets, nor did they get a chance to have us over for dinner before today’s announcement. But I’ve got some stiff cardboard boxes they can borrow for the move back to Hanover, and I know a cheap and efficient moving company they can hire. And while I'm at it, I’ll give them your regards.