compulsory reading, German Politics

He won’t give quite the Horst.

Sich zum Horst machen – loosely translated “to give the Horst” – is a rather old fashioned, 1970s way to express that someone has seriously embarrassed himself. The German idiom had sudden hopes for a revival last week when CDU, CSU and FDP announced that Horst Köhler, then still managing director at the IMF, would accept their nomination for the almost exclusively ceremonial German presidency.

Not that this specific Horst did not have the most outstanding professional merits and, moreover, commanded the trust of Helmut Kohl, who had nominated him – a few years ago – to run the East European Development Bank. Surprisingly, this fact was never really mentioned in the explanations of yet another defeat of Mr Schäuble, the long-time frontrunner for the nomination but for several years now a veritable enemy of his former mentor, Helmut Kohl, who, by all means, can still pull some strings in the CDU.

But the fact that Mr Köhler was completely unknown to the wider German public made the nomination certainly a little bit more risky than it would have been in the case of a nomination of Mr Schäuble. There was – and there still is – a tiny chance that his candidacy could turn out to give the Horst, quite literally.

But there are also advantages. He can start from scratch, building on the enormous advance of trust that those that know him, professionally, and personally, have injected into the German discourse after the nomination.

Today was his Coming Out. After an interview with Der Spiegel it was time to get on the bigger stage and show his face to the people he will likely soon represent: He was given an unsurprising warm welcome by the conservative lead print medium Bild (that has recently been scorned by the chancellor” )
before going on tv tonight for a one hour interview.

Before, when his supporters tried to explain why he would be the right President in times of change, most arguments focussed on his professional and international background. But even after being only briefly introduced into Mr and Mrs Köhler’s life by an only slightly gifted and scarcely briefed interviewer I am far more confident than before that he is indeed not just intellectually the candidate we need: He is not the early capitalist IMF monster as which some will try to paint him in the coming months. But hailing from the poor background of a large refugee family that lost everything three times until he was ten, he is someone who knows first hand that sometimes, change may be for the better. And he seems like an exemplary father even in light of a tragic illness of his daughter and a certainly unpleasant teenage fatherhood of his son.

Despite evidently carefully crafted questions and answers on these personal issues, both Mr and Mrs Köhler showed an understandable, visible uneasiness. There certainly is a difference between theoretical readiness for an office and the practical torment that he – and to some extent his family – will go through in the next months. Some things in Germany did change since he left six years ago. For one thing, the government has moved to Berlin, and so has much of the “political” media. The cosy interaction of politicians and journalists back in the good old days in Bonn are certainly gone. There may still be a bit more of an informal consensus banning overly extensive, certainly unethical reporting about politicians’ families, but that consensus is certainly wearing thinner and thinner. So this aspect will take some time to get used to.

I am almost certain the new “first family” will get used to it. I suppose they will see this as just one more challenge and feel the obligation to serve – out of a sense of duty. In the Bild-interview he said he felt deep gratitude and the need to give something back to the country that let a farmer’s son rise to President by giving him the opportunity of education. Now that’s what I call a “German Dream!”