The Eternal Outsider Guido Westerwelle's Struggle for Popularity

Guido Westerwelle, the leader of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, is set to become Germany's new foreign minister after his party scored its best-ever result in national elections. But does a politician best-known for his ever-changing roles and campaign stunts have the gravitas to be the country's top diplomat?

He knows it's important to control his feelings now, not to smile too broadly. A subtle smile is all Guido Westerwelle allows to appear on his face as he emerges from the conference room. The parliamentary group of his party, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), has just unanimously voted him into office as its new floor leader. It is yet another triumph, but he is being careful not to flaunt it. Westerwelle knows that it's time to be a statesman.

He appears before the press, his hands folded together and his pale gold tie shimmering in the light. Two days earlier, on Sunday, Sept. 27, the FDP achieved its best result ever in a national parliamentary election. The previous day, Westerwelle met with Chancellor Angela Merkel, his future coalition partner. A journalist asks whether champagne was served at the meeting. Westerwelle, looking serious, replies: "There was tea."


Photo Gallery: Guido Westerwelle's Rise to Power

Foto: Oliver_Multhaup/ picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

He talks about how aware he is of his newfound responsibility. The FDP, he says, intends to put the words "calm and persistent" on its agenda during the coalition negotiations with Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

As he is preparing to leave, an FDP member of parliament brings him a bouquet of flowers he had apparently left in the room. "Oh, my little flowers," Westerwelle says as he breezes out of the room. A few minutes later, as Westerwelle and his staff are standing at the elevator, far away from the journalists present, they burst out laughing.

Calm and Serious

There is not a single German politician today who is more intent on making a calm and serious impression in public than Guido Westerwelle. He will be Germany's next vice-chancellor and, in all likelihood, its next foreign minister, and he is behaving as if no one were more qualified for both these jobs than he, Guido Westerwelle.

He is doing this partly because he knows that there could be doubts as to whether this is really the case. And because he knows that he was once decried as a politician with a penchant for over-the-top stunts and as someone who effortlessly shifted from one role to the next. All clichés, says Westerwelle today, and yet he is the one who triggered them in the first place.

In those moments when Westerwelle lets down his guard and speaks more spontaneously, the image that comes to mind is of a brightly decorated Christmas tree going up in flames -- hissing, crackling, smoldering and blazing.

This is the man on whom close to 15 percent of German voters are pinning their hopes. He will soon be one of the country's most important people, and his decisions will affect the lives of millions. The idea makes many Germans uncomfortable. Despite his newfound self-discipline, Westerwelle is still something of an oddball. What made him the way he is today? What sort of a life has he lived, to have become this way? And what does this say about what the country can expect of him?

Difficult Years

Guido Westerwelle was born on Dec. 27, 1961 in Bad Honnef, a town near Bonn. His parents separated when he was nine. "Those were difficult years," Westerwelle told his biographer Majid Sattar, explaining that such a separation "isn't nice when you're at that sensitive age." His parents fought over custody of their sons, and for a time the boys were dragged back and forth between the parents' two households. Eventually, all four sons decided to live with the father.

Guido became overweight and his performance in school suffered. In his first year in a university-track Gymnasium high school, his grades were so poor that he was sent to a Realschule, a type of high school that ranks in the middle in Germany's three-tier system. The atmosphere in the school was informal, says his former mathematics teacher, Eberhard Brennecke, "and quite liberal." Nevertheless, Guido still managed to antagonize people.

Brennecke was constantly placating fellow teachers who didn't like the new student because he was insolent and unwilling to back down from his opinions. He disputed his grades and the grades of other students. "He had a big mouth," says Brennecke, "which many found annoying."

His high school years are unlikely to figure prominently in politician Westerwelle's stories. Today, as a university graduate, he sees them as a flawed chapter in his life. In the end, however, he has managed to put a positive twist on that period. At least in the Realschule, says Westerwelle today, he was not exposed to the radical teachers of the late 1960s and the spoiled children of leftist academics typical of the university-track schools.

But he did encounter those children at the Ernst-Moritz-Arndt Gymnasium in Bonn, which he later attended. The seeds of his aversion for the leftist establishment were sown there, a dislike that later turned into his abhorrence for the Greens and the Social Democrats. Westerwelle had a rough time at the school where, coming as he did from a less-prestigious Realschule, he struggled to achieve good grades and the recognition of his fellow students. When he ran for class spokesman, he came last by a wide margin.

Annoying Statements

Many of the students despised Westerwelle, who was constantly trying to attract attention to himself with irreverent remarks. He was involved with the school theater and became editor-in-chief of the student newspaper Ventil. A booklet dubbed "Westerwelle's Black Book," a collection of his most annoying statements, was soon circulating among his fellow students.

He became a Popper, as the members of a 1980s West German youth subculture which favored designer labels were known, and started wearing wine-red jeans and shirts and carrying a pilot's briefcase. The other students, who carried their things around in burlap bags, made fun of him. At the University of Bonn, where he began studying law after finishing high school, he sought new friends. At 18, he felt that the Young Christian Democrats, the CDU's youth group, was too bourgeois. He had no use for the collectivist ideas of the Social Democrats, and he had always found the Greens strange.

Westerwelle, the son of self-employed attorneys, felt that it was unfair for people to be paid for doing nothing. "Work has to be worth it," was his mantra at the time, and it took him to the Young Liberals, the FDP's youth organization.

Ostracized for Being Gay

His political career began with trees. In 1981, as chairman of the Young Liberals' district chapter in Bonn, he prevented a row of trees from being cut down along one of the city's picturesque boulevards, Poppelsdorfer Allee. In November, Westerwelle attended the Young Liberals' national convention in the southwestern city of Mainz. His district chapter urged him to run for the office of national deputy chairman of the youth organization. But Westerwelle was skeptical. "Do you really think I can do it?" he asked his friends.

But the delegates didn't vote for him. He was too precocious, and some were privately offended by his sexual orientation.


Photo Gallery: Guido Westerwelle's Rise to Power

Foto: Oliver_Multhaup/ picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

He talked about his homosexual tendencies openly with school friend Werner Hümmrich early on, and sometimes other boys spent the night with Westerwelle when he was living in his father's house. But the social climate in West Germany was still relatively conservative during Westerwelle's younger years, and he learned that it was better to hide the fact that he was gay. He didn't want to be ostracized again. He wanted to be liked and he wanted to be successful.

Thick Skin

In July 1981, when Westerwelle failed to win the required majority of votes in the first round of voting at the Young Liberals' national convention, he was ready to give up. "I can't do it," he told his mentor, Hartmut Knüppel, who had held the post of deputy chairman until then. "You'll just have to run again," Knüppel said, and he gave a rousing speech in Westerwelle's support. This time he won the vote.

In the political world he had chosen for himself, he was usually the youngest. It made him vulnerable to attack and sometimes caused him to stumble. He defended himself by developing a thick skin and cultivated a brash, power-hungry external persona. But his earlier failures had left their mark, and he was often beset by doubts over whether he was up to the next challenge.

At 21, Westerwelle became the Young Liberals' national chairman. Three years later, in 1987, he decided to run for a seat in the German parliament, the Bundestag. There was no room for him in Bonn, so he campaigned in Bielefeld, a city in northwestern Germany, instead. But party members there sensed his arrogance, and Westerwelle, after receiving an unfavorable slot on the FDP's candidate list, lost his bid for a Bundestag seat. From then on, his political career became a cycle of alternating encouragement and self-doubt. In 1990, he ran for an election district in Bonn and failed once again, after being defeated by a rival candidate from within his own party.

Schizophrenic Existence

"He had no mentors in the party," says his close associate Hartmut Knüppel. Westerwelle was usually left to fend for himself, and was excluded from the power center of the party. He was forced to seek public attention, and he fought to keep from being forgotten. Westerwelle's growing media presence helped him remain visible during the difficult years after 1990.

In 1994, a so-called "super election year" (a year in which local, state and federal elections are held), Westerwelle was back in the game. He failed in his third attempt to win a seat in the Bundestag, but after the party had suffered disastrous losses in local and state parliamentary elections, then-FDP Chairman Klaus Kinkel had to find a replacement for the party's outgoing general secretary. At a turbulent convention in the eastern city of Gera, the delegates voted Westerwelle into office as their new general secretary. It was a high-profile job, and Westerwelle was in top form.

The Guido Show had begun. He gave the press what it supposedly craved: details about his personal life. He talked about his favorite Italian restaurant and his vacation in Venice, but there was no mention of his homosexuality. It was a bizarre game that he was playing with the media. Even as he sought to raise his profile, he seemed in some ways to be trying to hide from public attention. He told the press that he didn't have a girlfriend, but then coquettishly pointed out that this meant that he was still available. He would live this schizophrenic existence for the next 10 years.

Sparking Resentment

Before the 1998 general election, he hoped that he would be offered a cabinet seat in the next administration. But the FDP was shut out of the government when Gerhard Schröder's center-left Social Democrats formed a coalition government with the Green Party. In public, Westerwelle continued to cultivate his reputation as a joker. Internally, however, he descended into apathy. His party, which had been part of coalition governments for almost three decades without a break, was in a state of shock after losing power. Westerwelle began searching for direction and new ideas. In 2000, his internal rival Jürgen Möllemann captured almost 10 percent of the vote in state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia with an audacious campaign. Westerwelle was fascinated.

In May 2001, he forced FDP Chairman Wolfgang Gerhardt out of office. Westerwelle had decided to transform the FDP into a centrist protest party, equidistant from both the governing SPD-Green Party coalition and the conservative CDU and CSU. His role model was right-wing Dutch populist Pim Fortuyn, who had attracted attention in the Netherlands with his sharp attacks on Islam and was gaining a growing number of supporters. Fortuyn, who was murdered a year later, was also homosexual. He had cited the homophobic attitudes of many Muslims as one of the reasons for his rejection of Islam.

Westerwelle was intrigued by the idea of sparking resentment on the basis of liberal ideology, and of then using that resentment politically. He aligned himself with Möllemann, who had conceived "Project 18," with the aim -- considered megalomaniacal at the time -- of capturing 18 percent of the vote for the FDP. The project had many frivolous elements, such as the yellow "Guidomobil" bus in which Westerwelle traveled around Germany during the campaign. At its core, however, it was a serious effort to transform the FDP into a medium-sized party.

Breaking Taboos

Another goal was to break taboos. And few things are as taboo in German politics as anti-Semitism.

The two politicians did not make openly anti-Semitic remarks. The FDP would not have stood for that. But Möllemann openly voiced sympathy for Palestinian suicide bombers. He was trying to lure Jamal Karsli, a Green politician known for his anti-Semitic remarks, into the FDP. He also accused the vice-president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Michel Friedman, of contributing to anti-Semitism with his behavior.


Photo Gallery: Guido Westerwelle's Rise to Power

Foto: Oliver_Multhaup/ picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

Westerwelle said that Friedmann had "no higher moral authority" in the debate. When asked about his position on Germany's Nazi past during a visit to Israel, Westerwelle said: "We want to ask questions in a different way and answer them differently." He neglected to explain what he meant.

Former FDP Chairman Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who had been German foreign minister for many years, had soon had enough and demanded an end to this populist approach. Möllemann was increasingly isolated within the party leadership, so that Westerwelle had to distance himself from him in order to save his own skin. "Project 18" dragged on for a few more months until it was quietly terminated. In June 2003, Möllemann committed suicide in a parachute jump, an act motivated primarily by a campaign contribution scandal.

Today Westerwelle's friends claim that Möllemann deceived him into falling for his repugnant ideas. Indeed, Westerwelle has managed to relegate the episode to an almost-forgotten past, while the public seems to remember only the more outrageous, fun aspects of that period: the Guidomobil, Westerwelle's appearance on the reality show "Big Brother" and photos taken of him playing beach volleyball.

Was it just role-playing or do these incidents offer a glimpse of the real Westerwelle? Hartmut Lennarz, his former German teacher, says that the Westerwelle of Guidomobil and Project 18 fame reminded him of the student he once taught.

Rancid Machismo

Westerwelle discovered his ideal role during the time of the second SPD-Green Party coalition government, playing to the neoliberal zeitgeist by loudly criticizing the government's social and fiscal policies. But then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer refused to treat him as an equal, joking and smirking on the administration bench whenever Westerwelle spoke in the Bundestag. It was the heyday of a "rancid machismo," as columnist Gustav Seibt recently wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

Angela Merkel was just as much a victim of these attitudes as Westerwelle. She too was not taken seriously by her testosterone-charged fellow politicians Schröder and Fischer. In the end it was CSU Chairman Edmund Stoiber who put the widespread resentment against Merkel and Westerwelle into words, famously describing them as "lightweights."

"The outsiders" would have been a better description. Merkel and Westerwelle, the chancellor and the future vice-chancellor, have played remarkably similar roles in life. Just as Westerwelle long concealed his homosexuality, Merkel could not manage to express her inner disapproval of the East German system. Both had to train themselves to keep a core element of their personality hidden.

And both had to learn to live with the fact that they were relatively unpopular with the public and even a large segment of their political associates. Westerwelle faced discrimination for being gay, Merkel for being a childless woman from the former East Germany in the West German old boys' club that was the CDU at the time. Both politicians are also all too familiar with painful comments about their appearance, including countless vicious remarks about their faces.

Saying the Wrong Thing

Neither Merkel nor Westerwelle are loved within their parties. They are condemned to success; if they failed they would be ejected. How can someone who is never given a sense of security come across as confident? This is now becoming evident.

Merkel has a tendency to say the wrong thing or to look uncomfortable, while Westerwelle finds it difficult to find the right tone and volume. But the two understand each other, united by their similar experiences.

As chancellor, Merkel has had the pleasant experience of being popular, and she has become more confident as a result. Westerwelle now plans to follow her into the new government, but that also means that he must abandon the delights of being in the opposition. The opposition is the idea place for role-playing. Words and gestures are important tools in the opposition, a magical realm where anything can be demanded or claimed. Those in power can also play, but here and there they are required to act, make decisions with which they will become associated.

Westerwelle is now standing at this threshold. He has inspired high expectations among his supporters, who are tired of government intervention and social handouts. They want Westerwelle to trim the government.

High Expectations

During the coalition negotiations that begin this week, it will become clear whether he is capable of satisfying those expectations. But a different decision will really speak volumes about Westerwelle, namely the question of which cabinet post he assumes.

If Westerwelle takes the things he has been fighting for throughout his political career seriously, he will become finance minister. It would be the position in which he could redefine the role of the state, and it would be a natural role for Westerwelle.

But instead he is expected to become foreign minister, a post that traditionally goes to the junior coalition partner in a German government. How is this supposed to work? Will new financial and social policy be made in Germany, while Westerwelle spends his time in Lima? Will Westerwelle tour Africa while German unions stage protests at home against the new CDU-FDP government?

This could be his opportunity to once and for all ditch the image of role-player and jokester politician. The door to the realm of painful gravitas is open. The Finance Ministry is nothing if not a serious place. A politician doesn't make himself popular by embarking on a course of radical belt-tightening.

But a politician does make himself popular as foreign minister: red carpets the world over, and no decisions that are painful to German citizens. It is an incredibly tempting prospect for someone who has spent much of his life being disliked and insecure -- the prospect of suddenly becoming popular.

Westerwelle's Next Role

And what a temptation it is. Westerwelle's life up until now suggests that he will not be able to resist. "He always envied people who could walk into a room and attract everyone's attention, people who were natural magnets for the sympathy of others," says his biographer Majid Sattar.

But Westerwelle has never been all that interested in foreign policy. It would be like playing his next role.

There have been many jokes in the past few days about Westerwelle's English language skills. On Monday of last week, he refused to respond in English to a BBC reporter's question, prompting speculation over whether the future foreign minister can really speak the language. "Now I will be happy to take questions in German," he said after a meeting of the party leadership on Thursday, and smiled at his self-deprecating humor.

A journalist asked a complicated question. "Well, it was certainly in German, but I still didn't understand it," Westerwelle said. "I could also ask the question in ancient Greek," the journalist replied. "Then I'll answer it in Latin," Westerwelle said, "because that was my main subject in high school."

The journalists laughed and Westerwelle was pleased to have scored a point. But instead of leaving well enough alone, he added: "And then there's also the question of how good your ancient Greek is."

Of course, there is also the question of Westerwelle's Latin. In high school, his grades in Latin were miserable. He owes it to his teacher's leniency that he passed the subject at all.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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