The World

Loose lips sink Schmidts

MICHAEL GETLER October 4 1976
The World

Loose lips sink Schmidts

MICHAEL GETLER October 4 1976

Loose lips sink Schmidts


Touring Bonn’s modernistic new chancellery building last summer, West German leader Helmut Schmidt paused in front of his sparkling private bath and broke into a Cheshire cat smile. “Helmut Kohl,” he declared confidently, “can never be chancellor. The tub’s too small.” At the time, he probably could have thought of far more substantial reasons, as well, why the sixfoot, four-inch Kohl, who leads a coalition of West Germany’s opposition conservative parties, would never occupy the chancellor’s office.

But that was several months ago and in the days just before the country’s October 3 general election, Kohl shot dramatically to within two percentage points of overtaking Schmidt in popular opinion polls. At the end of a tough, sometimes abrasive six weeks of campaigning, Schmidt, the handsome, caustic European dynamo, was

forced into a somewhat painful last-minute plea for support. The surprise midSeptember upset of Sweden’s Social Democrats at the hands of a conservative coalition (see page 62) did nothing to ease his concern. The 57-year-old chancellor and the left-centre government he heads implored West Germany’s 40 million electors to “vote with your head; but don’t forget that the heart lies a little to the left of centre.”

On the surface, there was little in Schmidt’s record to explain his apparent decline in popularity. During his 16 months in office, the dashing chancellor made himself the dominant political figure in Western Europe. Widely credited with having steered West Germany through the recession better than any other industrial country, Schmidt stood at the head of one of the world’s most prosperous nations. The cost of living increase in West Germany so far this year is 4.6%, lowest in Western Europe except for Switzerland. Unemployment was an enviable 4.1%.

West Germany also enjoyed one of the healthiest trade balances, strongest currencies and largest foreign reserve balances on the continent.

These advances, plus Schmidt’s own towering stature as a political leader, made the slide of his governing Social Democrats and their coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party, all the more puzzling. Adding to the bafflement was the bland, uninspiring style of Kohl, who, although he stumped the country tirelessly, rarely rose above the unremitting boredom of his speeches. His Christian Democratic Party and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union headed by ultra-conservative Franz-Josef Strauss, contended the basic choice for voters was “freedom or socialism.” Schmidt, who is firmly in the centre of the political spectrum, scoffed at this and rephrased the slogan as “free beer or rheumatism.”

But a range of more serious concerns seemed to be working together to make the

race extremely close. When Schmidt replaced Willy Brandt as chancellor during a spy scandal in May, 1974, he appeared to be the ideal man for the time: an economist in the midst of a recession, a modern manager-chancellor free of his predecessors’ obsession with erasing the Nazi past and restoring Germany’s self-respect. But Schmidt is also a supremely confident man who gambled that he could increase his support by telling West Germans that their society is superior to any other in Europe without losing the prestige his country has won internationally. But the strategy, according to the polls, backfired. In Paris, Amsterdam and Stockholm there were campaigns reviving the image of the “ugly Germans” and showing that the legacy of two world wars still imposes limits on any West German chancellor’s role as a European leader.

The antagonism aroused in other European countries sent sensitive Germans scurrying for cover and there were strong indications many were looking for someone who could lead the country effectively without becoming a lightning rod for international attention. Said one longtime Schmidt admirer in the opposition: “The reemergence of Schmidt-the-lip [a nickname he earned in parliament 20 years ago] is the worst political mistake I have ever seen him make.”

Last spring by comparing social conditions under the past dictatorships of Spain and Portugal to those under De Gaulle in France, Schmidt incurred the wrath of for-

mer Gaullist prime minister Jacques Chirac, who complained to Bonn and received an apologetic explanation. In July, Schmidt told a Washington audience that if the Communists gained power in Italy, the West would cut off aid to the Italian government. The French Communist press immediately dubbed him a “regional gendarme,” the agent of American imperialism in Europe. There was also a curious French response to Schmidt’s call for domestic pride in what his platform calls “model Germany.” The French reaction seemed to be a combination of jealousy and uneasiness at the faintly Hitlerian ring of the slogan. The external criticism demonstrated a phenomenon that is relatively new to Western Europe: as the European Common Market moves slowly and hesitantly toward political unity, domestic politics inevitably become European politics —something that Schmidt may not

have counted on when he planned his campaign.

The closeness of the race was taken as a personal affront by the chancellor. “He just can’t understand how the people could be so ungrateful,” said an aide. The absence of major issues to be debated turned the campaign largely into a personality contest. And, although Schmidt has a genuinely attractive side, he is also seen by many West Germans as a fairly humorless work addict who puts in 14-hour days, pausing only for a lunchtime bowl of vegetable soup at his desk. Schmidt possesses a Trudeau-like waspishness and impatience

with those he considers to be lesser mortals or countries. Recently, for example, he infuriated Italians with the comment that Italian Army tanks have “one gear forward and three in reverse.” He is equally caustic in his dealings with political opponents and is lumbered by an inability to mingle easily with crowds. Says one of his assistants: “After a speech I have to force him to go down and mix with the people.” Adds another aide: “He’s needed but he’s not loved.”

Capitalizing on Schmidt’s aloofness, Kohl cultivated a strikingly different image. He presented himself as an open man who, although he is a poor speechmaker and lacks charisma, enjoys crowds, likes kissing babies and is committed to the themes of patriotism and love. His patriotism, more pronounced than that of Schmidt, seemed to strike a responsive chord among conservative West Germans who are concerned about an increase in border incidents with East Germany and impatient with the Social Democrats’ policy of détente with the East. Schmidt strove to counterattack by consistently portraying himself as an ardent anti-Communist. For the final weeks of the campaign he also tried to use the worldwide Lockheed scandal against Kohl’s main ally, Strauss. Last December, a Lockheed lobbyist charged that in 1961 while Strauss was defense minister, his party received $12 million in kickbacks for Germany’s purchase of 700 Starfighter jets. No hard evidence was found to support the contention, but recently Schmidt’s defense ministry disclosed that documents dating back to the Strauss era are mysteriously missing.

So tight was the race that a Schmidt campaign worker recently complained that what the chancellor needed was a crisis of some sort to be able to demonstrate his leadership ability to the full. “But he’s done so well that we don’t have any crises.” It was, at best, a mixed blessing for Schmidt-the-lip. MICHAEL GETLER