Ursula von der Leyen smiles the smile of someone who made it. Relaxed, almost nonchalant, she approaches German President Joachim Gauck, who has in his hand the document officially naming her Germany's first female defense minister. Gauck gives von der Leyen a firm handshake. Von der Leyen smiles. Both turn to face the photographers.
The cameras click for four seconds, she holds the pose longer than any of the other ministers. Von der Leyen thanks Gauck. Next, she turns to Angela Merkel who says, "I look forward to working with you." Soon after, she's standing in front of Thomas de Maizière, her predecessor as defense minister.
De Maizière wants to simply extend his hand and offer brief congratulations -- for him, that would be enough. But von der Leyen is faster: She takes him by surprise, opening her arms and enveloping her colleague in a hug. De Maizière is startled, but then plays along, valiantly smiling as the cameras click away. A kiss on each cheek, then von der Leyen moves on.
It takes quite an amount of chutzpah to hug a man after you've just taken away his beloved job. But von der Leyen is capable of doing whatever it takes to get a good photo op, and did so at the Bellevue presidential palace, in Berlin on December 17, when she was officially appointed to her new post. Von der Leyen has always had a talent for easing the bitter taste of her ambition with a sweet coating of harmony. It's a method that has brought her far.
Germany now has a new government -- it has a few surprises in store, and one of them has been Ursula von der Leyen. Not only has she battled her way up to become the first female defense minister in German history, she has also managed along the way to reorganize the hierarchy of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Within the CDU, two women are in charge now. Merkel at the top, and von der Leyen as her second in command. Then there's a considerable gap between them and the next in line. De Maizière, who had been all set to slip into the role of crown prince, was forced to make way so that von der Leyen could receive a ministerial post. That step fits in with her ambition and her desire to invent a new story for herself.
Political Minefield For von der Leyen
De Maizière is now interior minister, a position of power in any government, yet he is the loser in this situation and he knows it. He doesn't want to give up, though. Merkel is entering her third term in office and remains undisputed within the CDU, but there's a debate developing over who should one day succeed her. Any politician who aspires to do so needs to start getting into position now. Von der Leyen has done so, and de Maizière plans to do so.
One plus point from de Maizière's point of view is the fact that his rival has just taken on a politically risky ministry. Any file at the Defense Ministry's Berlin headquarters might turn out to contain the next arms scandal, any skirmish in Afghanistan could trigger an avalanche of critical questions, every closure of a base could bring about a storm of public outrage. There's no doubt about it, as the person who now holds the power of command over Germany's armed forces, von der Leyen is marching into a political minefield, and the word from within party circles is that not a few people within the CDU, including de Maizière, are watching eagerly to see whether von der Leyen will prove herself or fail.
But this is what she wanted. And she got her way.
Since the fog surrounding the formation of the new cabinet lifted, an ugly word is making the rounds in Berlin -- extortion. That word was tossed around once before in the context of these two women, when von der Leyen forced the chancellor to change course this spring on the issue of a gender quota. Merkel hasn't forgotten that.
Is that history now repeating itself? Extortion is a strong word, but a look at the steps that went into the formation of the new government makes it clear that no one in the CDU has put as much pressure on Merkel in recent weeks as von der Leyen. Merkel knew she would ultimately have to grant von der Leyen's wish.
Von der Leyen's path to the Defense Ministry began a couple days after the federal election on September 22. At that point, it was unclear with which of its potential partners the CDU would ultimately form a governing coalition. In a one-on-one discussion, von der Leyen and the chancellor ran through all the possibilities, as well as addressing the question of what should become of von der Leyen herself.
Both politicians knew that if they formed a grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD), that party would lay claim to the Labor Ministry, which von der Leyen has headed for the last four years. In her conversation with Merkel, von der Leyen indicated her willingness to consider various options, but made one thing unambiguously clear -- she did not want to be health minister. In fact, the implication was, she would rather have no post at all than have that. The Chancellery was left with the impression that, if push came to shove, von der Leyen would go without a cabinet post entirely. These days, though, no one is willing to describe what passed between the two politicians that day as a "threat."
Von der Leyen is a qualified doctor, but doesn't think that would be of any benefit in the Health Ministry. The work there, she says, isn't about treating illnesses but about managing the complicated system of funding health care. That's certainly true, but von der Leyen's real motive is a different one. After heading the Labor Ministry, with its 120 billion ($160 billion) budget, moving to the Health Ministry would be a step to the side, or perhaps even a step down. Von der Leyen doesn't want to end up with the country's newspapers announcing that she is the great loser in the new government. So far, her career has moved in only one direction, and that direction is up.