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The Republic's sexiest calves

Moritz Rinke on Germany's media darling ex-Chancellor

At first, power moves into an open face. It is somewhat flushed and surprised at itself, prepared for victory or at least ready to attack. Then the face starts to change; it starts to look more satisfied, and its surface is so illuminated by camera flashes and devotion that something aura-like starts to radiate off it. But then, the once triumphant victor has to start defending his hold on power against everyone else. As the years go by, a crust starts forming over face, layer by layer. Crust and aura.

At the end, when it's no longer possible to defend this power, all that remains of the face is a sort of protective outer casing which seems totally unnecessary, which no longer breathes air from the outside. What follows is a process of deterioration that proceeds faster in the media republic than in the natural world. The face has just enough time to bring out its memoirs and maybe a commission of inquiry before it deteriorates completely; in the worst case, it ends up propped up on the dingy back benches.

Open faces: Schröder, Fischer, Lafontaine celebrating their electoral victory in 1998. © AP

Helmut Kohl has been through it all. In a society which considers itself open but defines a person's worth almost exclusively through their position in society, the only thing that follows the top job is death. I remember Kohl's appearances after he was voted out of office; journalists admitted to feeling sympathy for him. I was sitting talking to the tageszeitung in the Sale e Tabacchi restaurant when Kohl was suddenly behind me. I got the scare of my life. Suddenly he was there, just like a ghost that can't leave its castle, that stands around in the corners, looking pale.

Gerhard Schröder
's life in the ghostly netherworlds will begin today, as soon as the lights go down. Or maybe it won't. But is it possible to imagine Schröder in real life? And maybe the question should be applied not only to Schröder but to the entire media republic which created itself alongside him.

My God, those were the days! March 1999, right in the middle of his cigar and Brioni phase (story here) when Schröder looked like a man who had got where he wanted to be and didn't quite know what to do next – this was the first time Germany had had that feeling since 1945. With the consent of a Green Foreign Minister, and without a UN mandate! The intervention against Serbia, what a fantastic chaos of Left-Right debate. To shoot or not to shoot? To govern or not to govern?

After an election party that lasted about five months, Schröder and Fischer gradually began to notice that changing the system from the Left seemed like good idea to the Chancellor's political generation, were it not for the fact that they'd taken the helm at a time when right-left wasn't really functioning any more. In the realm of domestic policy, it was possible to imagine how a red-green coalition might go about marrying modernisation and social justice, but what about foreign policy? Defence minister Rudolf Scharping couldn't get out of the pool with his countess fast enough to keep up with the bombardment of questions (story here). And those Social Democratic statements: "We will defend Germany on the Hindukush!" Second war!

And what about all the biographies and stories back home? Cane and Abel (rivals Gerhard Schröder and Oskar Lafontaine) battled it out until the latter fled, carefully avoiding the huge hole in the budget, to his balcony in Saarland. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - the former Red Army Faction defence layer Otto Schily is named Minister of the Interior and turns the SPD into the greatest Law and Order party in German history. The country takes a brave stand against America while its a Minister of Justice loses her marbles completely, publicly comparing the American president to Adolf Hitler. And all the while, the Chancellor with his "calm hand" (Schröder's description of his style of governance) stands knee-deep in the rising waters of the Elbe. And that absurd election night of 2002! Edmund Stoiber (of the CSU) declares himself the winner, and at midnight, Schröder and Fischer come on like the Klitschko brothers, shaking their fists in the air. It's only on Monday that it finally dawns on them that, because they hadn't expected to win, they have nothing on the agenda except Iraq. Or Hartz, that magic name, (Peter Hartz, a former Volkswagen board member, drew up the government's unpopular social reforms know as Hartz IV), now somehow associated with brothel business. Perfect fodder for the media republic!

If we think of Germany as a ship, the world and its rampant globalisation as the stormy seas, then Schröder & Fischer would be a couple of tipsy sea captains who still seemed able to convince us that they'd make it across the ocean one way or another. In their own port, okay, they trash the odd little dinghy and on one occasion, they did crash headlong into the Statue of Liberty ...

Yes, the old media republic. You could almost describe it as a marriage between the journalists and Schröder: all touchy feely at first and, by the end, the crockery flying in all directions.

I can still remember how everyone huddled around Schröder at a Günter Grass reading in the Chancellery. First the Chancellor insisted on carrying the poet's red wine glass around for him, then there was that visit to his office which happened to be right next to the Chancellor's bedroom. The journalists were transfixed, bewildered, taking their pens out of their pockets and putting them back again in a seemingly endless loop because they couldn't decide whether to make news of this or cherish it as a personal memory. Presumably both.

And this was the sort of thing Schröder did regularly. The rank and file Social Democrats never saw the inside of the Chancellery bedroom. Schröder's Social Democrats were the transfixed and bewildered media reps. It was through them or business or even culture that his politics were legitimated, never through the old party or parliament. Schröder felt so confident that he would make it into the upper echelons of society or the new middle, that his rhetorical palette did not need to extend beyond the odd currywurst and the occasional mention of his second degree education. This is what someone does if he knows that drawing fundamental or ideological lines won't accomplish anything, that the public sphere thrives on constant trend-shifting, that the only politics possible are those that leap from one day to the next. Alas, the bread and butter Social Democrats couldn't keep track.

But then in the election campaign, Schröder took a few strokes back to the red party basis, using it as a trend and pitched camp several kilometres to the left of his own agenda. He basically led an election campaign against himself, because Merkel gave him nothing to bite into other than her professor Paul Kirchhof. Schröder versus Schröder was much more interesting.

The artist Bruno Bruni has said that Schröder is now preparing for his third and most important career yet: painting. You can even see it! He was always an autodidact and the good thing about painting is that you can keep on improving. After seven years in power, a little art criticism won't do him any harm.

The Chancellor, the artists and the intellectuals: what a huge misunderstanding! Cultural critics from the CDU saw them as being in a permanent state of coitus. My God, you had to justify a visit to the Chancellery as if you'd been in a swinger club. Naturally some artists misunderstood the intimate friendship offered by Schröder as an indication of an increase in their own importance, and some thought that a quick signature (see comment here and here) would gain them more than several years of quiet concentrated work.

It seemed that writers were in danger of becoming no more than signatories and this was down to the feuilleton police and their tendency to dump everything in one bucket. If you were against the Iraq war, it meant you were for "Dosenpfand" (recycling deposit paid on all cans and plastic bottles) and the "Praxisgebuhr" (quarterly payment of 10 euros to doctor's offices) – and parking tickets were handed out to all and sundry. And it all got so absurd. Artists who'd been chastised for years for not being sufficiently political suddenly started hurling themselves behind the concrete columns of the Chancellery whenever someone with a camera appeared, just to save their art. In other countries, governments throw their artists into prison; under Schröder, artists had to go into hiding to escape governmental favour.

Gerhard Schröder with the painter Markus Lüpertz in the Skylobby of the Chancellory in 2005. © Ullstein - BPA

Everybody liked Schröder, that was the fiendish thing. He seemed genuinely approachable, as though he was really listening, although, considering all his other problems, this can't have been the case. It was either an enormous acting talent or genuine interest. And they all gathered round. What an erotic sight, the courtesans all squatting on their government cushions on the small grey steps of the SkyLobby, the men's trouser legs hitched up, the socks too short: an amphitheatre of exposed calves. At first they all tried - from the Chancellor to the literary Pope – to pull down their trousers or pull up their socks, but then they gave up for the rest of his time in office.

I remember a reading of my play "Republic Vineta" - for which I was made to do penance for several years – where important journalists, politicians, celebs, and cultural authorities gathered: more than I'd ever seen in one place in my whole life. I looked down the steps into this flirt room of the media republic, everybody eyeing each other with their naked calves like at some giant singles party.

Of course no one was remotely interested in my play, that's not what it was about. It was about Him. Here in this room, he demonstrated his political version of participation: combining culture with currywurst, currywurst with a cosy chat about tomorrow's governmental trends, governmental trends with the media world – moderated together to form one common basis in the new middle.

Maybe seven years was a little long for this world to be exposing its calves. Maybe it was even a bit undemocratic. Nobody got to know the real basis.

And at the same time, Schröder didn't really get to know anybody. One can't get to know a chancellor. Because of the crust. Maybe later. When he turns into a ghost, or maybe into someone real.


This article originally appeared in German in Der Tagesspiegel on November 19, 2005.

Moritz Rinke, born 1967, is a playwright and freelance writer in Berlin. His play "Cafe Umberto" on the German Hartz IV social reforms is now playing at the Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus and Thalia Theater in Hamburg

Translation: lp, nb - let's talk european