Opinion A Man Too Small for the Presidency

Germany's president has resigned. It was the correct decision, because he failed as a role model. Instead of answering honestly the allegations against him, he used every trick in the book to hide things. The next president will have to be far better, and Chancellor Merkel will have no choice but to find a joint candidate with the opposition.

German President Christian Wulff's resignation is "good for the political culture and for democracy".
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German President Christian Wulff's resignation is "good for the political culture and for democracy".

A Commentary By


The most dim-witted political idea to come about in recent years was to make Christian Wulff Germany's president. The conservative Christian Democrats, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party and Chancellor Angela Merkel sought out this candidate -- and now they are jointly responsible for his failure. There could have been a better candidate, everyone knew that. But Merkel, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and their party strategists had considered just about everything when making this choice -- everything, that is, with the exception of what was good for the country.

Now Wulff is gone, and all sides have been damaged: the office of the president, Merkel and her coalition government, not to mention the overall image of politics. And that's a shame.

Compassion isn't really a category that goes along with politics, but Christian Wulff deserves it nonetheless. His fall is unprecedented in the history of the postwar Federal Republic of Germany. Just hours ago, he was the head of state, and red carpets were rolled out for him. Now he is facing the abyss, even having to fear he might have to forfeit the annual remuneration of €199,000 ($262,000) paid to former German presidents after they leave office. When he says that he is "wounded," he's surely being honest.

Of course, it was Wulff himself who made a mess of things. The image will remain of a man who wanted to be great but was ultimately too small for the office he was elected to. In the end, it was his mediocrity that proved fatal. It is irrelevant whether he always acted in a legally correct way in his offices, as he stated in his resignation speech on Friday. His failure came in the way in which he dealt with the endless stream of small and serious allegations against him.

Does Presumed Innocence Apply to Presidents Too?

When the first accusations emerged about his relationship with entrepreneur Egon Geerkens and his wife Edith, he lacked the guts to admit he had accepted a private loan. As the governor of the state of Lower Saxony, he ran the state parliament using the methods of a hack lawyer gone amok, attempting to influence unfavorable reporting in the media. Numerous questions remained open. And that has also been the case since the start of this affair. Wulff resorted to all kinds of tactics and only admitted to what he could no longer hide. Over time, though, it became clear that Germany did not have a statesman as president, but rather a political climber who mixed his professional and private lives -- and then used every trick in the book in his efforts to conceal that fact.

One could of course say: Politicians are also only human, humans who commit sins -- both large and small. That's true, too, of course. So why is Wulff being judged so harshly? Does the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" not also apply to a president?

Of course it applies. But we're not talking about some backbencher from the county council here. When it comes to propriety, courage, trust, dependability and straightforwardness, expectations are greater for the person sitting in Germany's highest office. And the president must also fulfil those expectations. It is right to expect, as Germans do, that the president will be a role model and provide a moral compass in a world in which role models are increasingly rare.

Christian Wulff fell short on these measures. That doesn't necessarily make him a bad person, but he was a bad president.

An Intact Sense of Right vs. Wrong

Wulff's resignation is good for Germany's political culture and for democracy, because it shows that the standards that have been set for the behavior of Germany's head of state still apply. The sense developed by a critical public of what is right and what is wrong is still intact. And anyone sitting in the country's highest offices who feels they can just sit out a scandal will be taught an important lesson by the Wulff case. It also shows that the rule of law remains intact in Germany. Everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. It is not just low-level officials who will be investigated over any whiff of accepting favors, but also even the federal president.

Where politicians fail, other control mechanisms still function, including the justice system and, yes, the media. After all, what would Germans known about Wulff's entanglements if not for critical journalists? Nothing.

Christian Wulff was Angela Merkel's president, just as Horst Köhler had been. With her majority, Merkel was able to push Wulff through as a candidate against the will of many in the country. But when it comes to selecting presidential candidates, Merkel has failed so obviously, that any attempt to go it alone to find his replacement will come across as sheer arrogance.

Merkel is smart enough to recognize this. She has only one option at this point: She will have to reach a consensus with the opposition center-left Social Democratic Party and the Greens. One wishes that wisdom will prevail on all sides. The country needs a president more than ever. But he will have to be truly first-class. Nor would it be bad if "he" were a she.

Roland Nelles is SPIEGEL ONLINE's Berlin bureau chief and heads the Politics Desk.

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