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The Nervous Dynamism of Europe's Workaday Radical

September 29, 1987|DAVID DEVOSS | Times Staff Writer

It was 1968 and in the nation's capital, after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., 14th Street was ablaze. To provide a safer haven from the rioting sweeping the city, American University economics professor Elspeth Rostow invited her brightest student, Petra Kelly, over to have dinner with her husband, Walt, the President's national security adviser.

Because of the rioting several miles away, Rostow invited Kelly to spend the night in their library in a makeshift bed. At 4 a.m. when a red telephone next to the bed began to ring, Kelly answered it, crept to the Rostows' bedroom door and knocked softly. Out came Rostow in his pajamas, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he proceeded to order a new bombing strike on North Vietnam.

New Image of Normalcy

"I had read a lot about the war but I didn't really believe it was happening until that night," Kelly says. "From that day I had this image of American officials. For them, it is quite normal to come home, eat a nice chicken dinner, then go to the phone in the library and drop a few bombs."

Kelly's recollection of Rostow casually summoning B-52s influenced not only her subsequent master's thesis criticizing the Marshall Plan but her ardent plunge into political activism.

It is 1987 and the founder of West Germany's controversial Green ( Die Grunen) Party and the champion of alternative radical politics in Europe is addressing a weekend symposium in Los Angeles on German-U.S. relations.

"Unfortunately, the impression one gets is that many Germans are angry about only one thing--and that is the fact that Hitler lost the war," Kelly tells the audience at the Goethe Institute, a government-subsidized organization promoting German language and culture.

In the back of the room, two representatives from the German consulate sit in pursed silence, but the 30 other diplomats and scholars remain transfixed, if not by the message, then by its messenger.

At the end of her presentation, Kelly slumps back in her chair, exhausted. The night before she was up until 5 a.m., writing her 18-page speech by hand. Later that afternoon she was to debate the legacy of Vietnam. A series of meetings with doctors specializing in hospice care for children with terminal cancer was scheduled for Monday. In between there were calls to Germany, interviews with the "alternative press" and, some time toward dawn of the following day, her customary four hours of sleep.

"The worst part of the job is correspondence," she says with a sigh. "Most young people have no sense of history. I can't have a secretary asking 'Who are you?' when (former Austrian Chancellor) Bruno Kreisky calls."

Her solution to that problem is appealingly anachronistic. In an age of laser-printed letters generated by computers, she devotes the hours between 3 and 5 a.m. to writing letters by hand.

Petra Kelly may not be Germany's most powerful politician, but she is far and away its most dynamic. A diminutive blonde with frosted hair and a manner of nervous urgency, her Bavarian inflection mingles with a twang gained while growing up in the American South.

Supports Orphan

Although a member of the German Parliament for four years, Kelly's clothes are off-the-rack simple, she continues to fly coach and travels without an entourage. Instead of staying at the nearby Beverly Wilshire for her three-day visit, she checked into a Ramada Hotel off Pico Boulevard.

She has a self-imposed vow of poverty (she gives half her annual parliamentary salary back to the Green Party). And she remains unmarried; her only attachment, other than Green Party members, is to a Tibetan orphan she met through the Dalai Lama and whom she has continued to support for the last 17 years.

Born to a German mother and Polish father in the Bavarian town of Gunzberg, betra Lehman moved to Georgia in 1960 after her divorced mother married U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Kelly. Though she was unable to speak English, she entered a public school in Columbus, Ga., the same year the civil rights revolution began at a Greensboro lunch counter.

An appreciation for King and his tactic of civil disobedience drew her into campus activism--and across the path of several powerful politicians. After being bombarded by her letters, Robert Kennedy advised her about scholarships. Kelly later returned the favor by founding Students for Kennedy. After his assassination, she began working for Hubert Humphrey, whom she had met earlier on a televised debate over Vietnam. "I found him to be one of the very few uncorrupted politicians in America, a man with socially just ethics and deep political feeling."

When Kelly's 10-year-old half-sister died of eye cancer in 1970, Humphrey was among the first to comfort the grieving student.

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