Hurricane Schroeder

"Hurricane Schroeder" Continued...

Issue: "False witnesses?," Oct. 5, 2002

In lengthy television debates, Mr. Stoiber, 61 and gray, could not steer past the 58-year-old, brown-haired Mr. Schroeder-despite a solid economic record as governor of Bavaria to show against some of the worst economic numbers in Germany's recent history. Third-quarter reports released in the final days of the election showed unemployment at a three-year high and retail and factory sales at all-time lows. Although the country still boasts the world's third-largest economy, the high cost of government has ground down private initiative. A pension crisis looms.

At the same time, unemployment in Bavaria dropped to below 6 percent under Mr. Stoiber. Economic growth policies in the state attracted high-tech industries and boosted an above-average public education system. On the national stage, where Bavarians persistently fail to win office, Mr. Stoiber was derided for his thick southern accent and conservative social positions. "Laptops and lederhosen" is how his policies added up in the national press.

Mr. Stoiber won 62 percent of the vote in his home state but was portrayed losing traction on home turf as a Bavarian who won't drink beer. Photo-ops caught him grimacing at local beer tastings and opting for alcohol-free ale. A Roman Catholic, he also held the line on important social policy, allowing schools to keep their crosses and going to court to challenge federal recognition of same-sex unions.

"He was really the best chance we ever had," Alois Glueck, a senior official of Mr. Stoiber's party, told The New York Times after the election. His Christian Social Union party backed him in an alliance with its larger sister party, the Christian Democratic Union. "He did such a great job in Bavaria. He would have been able to unite all of Germany."

Mr. Schroeder, by contrast, rose to party leadership and national office in 1998 by exploiting his rowdy reputation. As an unknown and inebriated lawmaker from Lower Saxony he once shook the gate at the chancellor's office in Bonn late one night shouting, "I want to get in there!" Such stories were pedaled into legend during his first campaign, along with blunt admissions about his Marxist past, marital strife (he is on his fourth wife), and affection for Cuban cigars.

That gig plays well among communists in the former East Germany. Conservatives point out that Mr. Schroeder did better there than the communist candidates because the chancellor was so good at stealing their lines. He also played to liberals who dislike Mr. Bush and to those from the "'68 generation" who still have not met a war they can handle.

The question facing Mr. Schroeder now is what will he do with the anti-Americanism tempest he stirred? Just days after floating proposals to pull German soldiers stationed in Kuwait and to restrict U.S. military installations in Germany, he showed signs of penitence, turning to British Prime Minister Tony Blair as an intermediary to the Bush administration. He met the United States' top European ally for a two-hour dinner discussion in London.

That did not immediately soften White House ire. "Nobody should be under illusions or mistakes that now that the election is over that everything goes back to the way it was," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said of Mr. Schroeder. "That's not the natural result of the manner in which that campaign was waged." At a NATO meeting in Poland, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied German defense minister Peter Struck's plea for a meeting.

Pundits believe Mr. Schroeder will pay a high price to continue isolationist posturing in wartime. "The Germans are desperately clinging to the myth that they are living on an island of the blessed, an absurd notion if you consider that the country has 10 open borders," said UPI German correspondent Uwe Siemon-Netto. "This is like believing that, 10 leaks notwithstanding, your skiff will safely make it across the pond without the help of others."

He will face problems at home, too. "Mr. Schroeder has to change his attitude quickly or he will run into great problems with the majority of the Germans," said Mr. Apel. "We know what the USA did for us after World War II and we know that our friendship with America is essential for our future."


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