German Politics

Socks in the Pool.

Anyone remember Rudof Scharping? Not too long ago – about a year – Rudolf Scharping was German Defence Minister. But then he stumbled over accepting socks worth DM 35 a pair from PR manager Maurice Hunziger. Well, let’s be fair – it wasn’t the socks alone…

Mr Scharping was one of the first big wig politicians I met. It was a few years before he became important in federal politics, when he was still Ministerpraesident (Governor) of Rhineland-Palatinate. I first met him as a pupil with black-and-white ideas about the right kind of secondary education, which I was going through then.

At the time, I formed an idea of what politicians tend to behave like in public discussions – they usually try to keep the subject at hand as general as possible only to use some back of the envelope statistics someone compiled for them as soon as they seem to be on the losing side on the general level of discussion. Sadly, this pattern applies to almost every politician I have met so far.

But Rudolf Scharping was different. He was strangely honest and in the end even agreed that we disagreed. I was stunned. And I remembered that, apparently, some politicians do function differently. On the policy side, he seemed different, too. He even established some kind of long-term policy think-tank within the state-chancellory, and hired people who did not just have to think in party-political terms but about the policy problems at hand.

At that time, I did not yet worry about Rudolf Scharping’s fate in politics. In 1993 he became chairman of the SPD in a bizarre party wide nomination campaign, against, notably, Gerhard Schroeder. But from the moment he was ousted as chairman of the SPD by Oskar – “my heart beats on the left” – Lafontaine after being narrowly defeated by Helmut Kohl in the 1994 Bundestag elections, an aura of provincial lack of machiavellian skills (was) built up slowly but decisively around him. And once people believe a politician is easy prey, he or she sooner or later does indeed become easy prey. And Mr Scharping certainly never appeared to be willing to fight for any office.

Neither in 1995, nor in 1998, when he was demoted from chairman of the Parliamentary party to defense secretary be Gerhard Schroeder, the post he lost in 2002 following a story about him accepting “gifts in kind” from said PR manager. And now that the SPD is going to elect a new board later this year, he is bound to lose his seat on the party’s board as well, according to Spiegel Online.

I don’t know Mr Scharping good enough to judge whether he was really refusing to “play the game” or if he was simply a bad player with good intentions. His vain attempts to regain some public virility, including shooting PR pictures of him kissing his new girlfriend in the pool of a Mallorcan villa literally minutes after deploying German soldiers to Kosovo or, well, the socks mentioned above somehow indicate he was the latter rather than the former.

Nontheless, it is tough to see the extent to which everyone with the intention to get into politics needs to be a good player, and not just someone who honestly cares about public affairs. With Rudolf Scharping gone, an honest but somehow clumsy voice will disappear entirely from German public life.