Germans' Conscience Wants to Be a Guide

President Herzog, on US visit, takes job from ribbon cutting to bully pulpit

When German President Roman Herzog arrives in Washington, he will have no military review on the tarmac and no state dinner at the White House - just a small luncheon with President Clinton July 24.

Why? The White House owes Germany a state visit, and until that diplomatic social obligation is satisfied, the German head of state cannot make a "state visit" to Washington. And because President Herzog has no direct political role, the term "working visit" is not used, his aides explain. It's just a visit - no military review and no state dinner.

If Herzog is miffed at this, he didn't let it show at a pre-departure briefing at the Villa Hammerschmidt, his official residence in Bonn. And in any case, he will still have the opportunity to bend the ears of Mr. Clinton, the Senate leadership, and others.

The term "bully pulpit" was used by Theodore Roosevelt to describe the American presidency, and it describes Herzog's role, too. Chancellor Helmut Kohl takes care of running the government. Herzog's role is as the conscience of his nation, helping define public discourse and touching on the important issues that sometimes get lost among daily pressures. His so-called Berlin speech in April, in which he said Germany needed a "jolt" and called for more decisive action from politicians, is still reverberating. "Bill Gates started in a garage and while still a young man turned Microsoft into a worldwide company," he said. "But if he tried that in Germany, the factory inspector would close down the garage." His office has received tens of thousands of requests for copies of his text, and a similar number have been downloaded from the Internet.

The presidential role is not only as a mouthpiece, but as eyes and ears, too. A visit to the Holocaust Museum, dedicated to the millions who lost their lives in Nazi death camps in World War II, will be on his schedule in Washington.

"A compulsory exercise?" he was asked. "No," he replied. "I want to see the museum." He was instrumental in having Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of the death camp at Auschwitz, set aside as a day of remembrance in Germany, he reminded his questioner.

But he also expressed interest in a newspaper report on a new German history curriculum being developed for Virginia schools to cover more than just the Nazi period. "I want to see what the picture of Germany is in the US," he said.

His nonpolitical role notwithstanding, he will be interested in hearing from Clinton "what countries the US has in mind for a second wave of NATO enlargement." Also on the unwritten agenda: the environment, terrorism, and organized crime ("no one can fight this one alone").

Many Germans wish the US would play its role as the world's only superpower with a lighter touch. Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, Bonn's No. 1 diplomat, said this week that with the cold war over, "the Americans haven't adjusted to their new role as the only superpower with enough sensitivity in relation to other states."

But over at the Villa Hammerschmidt, Herzog was a mellower. "The relationship between Washington and Bonn/Berlin couldn't be better," he said.

It was the first time this reporter can remember hearing a German official use this double name to refer to the German government. Herzog has just presided over the "topping out" ceremony (the equivalent of laying a cornerstone or cutting a ribbon) for his new quarters in Berlin, which are further along than other new government buildings. The reference shows he is mindful of his role as a "pacemaker" in the otherwise slow-motion move eastward of Germany's capital from Bonn to Berlin.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Germans' Conscience Wants to Be a Guide
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today