By Elizabeth Pond
Moral courage is replacing moral ambiguity in the German presidency. That's good for Germany. It will be good, if uncomfortable, for Angela Merkel—the acknowledged leader of all of Europe as the chancellor of the continent's biggest and richest country. What is intriguing as well is that despite all the talk about "populist" extremism, old-fashioned middle-of-the-road rectitude is hugely popular among voters.
Here's what happened last weekend. On Friday President Christian Wulff—a provincial politician from Merkel's Christian Democratic Union whom she had pushed through in 2010 to become the country's youngest president—resigned over dodgy loans and favors he had accepted as premier of Lower Saxony.
On Sunday night, Merkel's tiny Liberal coalition partner rebelled against her intent yet again to nominate a partisan politician for the vacated post. The Liberals threatened to withdraw from the coalition, bring down the government, and force suicidal new elections if the chancellor did not join with the opposition to make the politically independent Joachim Gauck the consensus nominee. Merkel, a canny tactician who hoards power within a close entourage, abruptly gave up on nominating a fellow conservative, reportedly after a shouting match with the head of the Liberals. She picked up her cell phone and intercepted Gauck in a taxi as he left the airport for home after a trip abroad and diverted him to an immediate press conference where she presented him as the cross-party candidate for head of state. He is due to be elected by the special legislative assembly in mid-March.
Germans were entranced. A late-night TV talk show pulled in five million viewers instantly when it switched its topic to Gauck. The next day, the 12-million circulation Bild featured the one-time East German pastor's somber, leathery face at the very top of the newspaper, above the more typical photos of nude women tobogganers and a cannibal shark.
"It's high time to elect as Germany's First Man a thinker and doer who is close to the common man and represents morality and decency," enthused one Herr Kuehlwein in a representative reader's comment in Bild.
Indeed, well over 50 percent of German adults tell pollsters they would vote for Joachim Gauck if they could vote directly for the president. The last time a German president enjoyed this much acclaim was a quarter-century ago, when Richard von Weizsäcker bluntly
lectured young compatriots that although they bore no personal guilt for Hitler's atrocities, they must always accept a special responsibility for preventing any repetition of Hitler's crimes in today's world. At the time, most of the public thanked the president for his plain speaking.
What makes the 72-year-old Gauck so popular today is his non-partisan record of fierce defense of principle. Back in the Cold War days of a divided Germany, this "thinker and doer" was one of the quiet heroes who defended human rights, preserved the Protestant church's integrity in Communist East Germany, and then finally tore down the Berlin Wall without bloodshed. After democratic West Germany absorbed East Germany in 1990, Gauck became the first curator of the East German secret police archives; he used them to both bar police collaborators from any political role in united Germany and to let individuals see their own files and find out who had spied on them. After his retirement, Gauck continued to be a public figure, expressing his pungent views about civic issues from a position he describes as firmly "left liberal conservative."
Joachim Gauck gives every indication that he will bring to the presidency the kind of independent gravitas and authority the founding fathers intended. Horrified by Hitler's manipulation of the president at the time of his own rise to power in the 1930s, the authors of West Germany's postwar democratic constitution stripped the executive branch of all political powers, except delaying legislation by withholding the final presidential signature. In the early postwar decades the president was regarded as a consensus figure above party politics, a moral flywheel free to speak the truth to both top government officials and a sometimes torpid society at large.
This non-political power won't challenge Angela Merkel directly. There is also no reason to expect an ideological clash between theologian Gauck and the chancellor, who herself grew up as the daughter of an East German Protestant pastor. At the Sunday night press conference, she lauded the president-in-waiting as "a real teacher of democracy." She added, "The central theme of the public work of Joachim Gauck is the idea of freedom in responsibility, and for all of my personal differences with him, this is what allies me with Joachim Gauck."
Nonetheless, Gauck's stature will end the political monopoly Merkel now enjoys after having staved off various conservative rivals and, most recently, voter rebellion over her financial bailouts of dysfunctional Greece. Already some pundits are writing that she has been "humiliated" and weakened by her defeat in the nomination of Gauck. Others, though, like Bild columnist Mathias Döpfner, expect her to shrug off this tactical setback "without loss of face."
In the end, it was the chancellor herself who nominated Gauck, Döpfner points out. He argues that Gauck will bring "a clear system of values coordinates" to his new office, defend it boldly, and can be an "integrating figure between East and West and Germans of all religions and differing life experiences." To Döpfner, he is "'the president of our hearts' and the most qualified" for the post. He is "the right president."
For ordinary Germans, they seem to be standing a bit taller today than they did a week ago.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and author of "Beyond the Wall: Germany's Road to Unification."
(Photo courtesy of Thorbengeyer)