SANTIAGO, Chile — The tall, slim man in the comfortable corner office on the ground floor of La Moneda, Chile's historical government house, has materialized there like a time traveler from long ago. His name, Edgardo Boeninger, has a familiar ring, echoing the faded urgency of bygone newscasts, resounding with the drama of past struggles for power.
Seventeen years have passed since a military coup interrupted Chilean democracy, ejecting Boeninger and others from the nucleus of national life. Now, many have returned to the thick of things; their names reign once more in the headlines as they wield the trappings of office.
Foremost among them, of course, is Patricio Aylwin, chairman of the Christian Democratic Party at the time of the 1973 coup and now Chile's elected civilian president. Then there are former congressmen, former ministers, longtime party leaders and other figures from the past who are among the people Aylwin relies on to help run the revived democracy.
By most accounts, the president relies on no one more than Boeninger, 65, whose official title is "minister secretary general of the presidency." A kind of right-hand man to Aylwin, he is a prime example of the political veteran who has bridged the gap of time and military rule to assume a key position in the new democratic order.
In fact, Boeninger played a major role in formulating the political strategy that carried the country through a remarkably smooth transition from military to civilian rule. In his ministerial position, he is a combination chief of staff, strategist, trouble-shooter and mediator whose intellectual prowess is sometimes said to make him indispensable to the president.
"There is no doubt in my mind that he is the closest adviser and the one the president pays most attention to," said an opposition politician.
"Aylwin would not be viable without Boeninger," commented another politician who has known both men for many years.
Chileans recall other, more turbulent times when Boeninger's formidable political skills were in play. In 1973, before the coup, the chants of marching youths and clouds of tear gas often rose over Santiago streets as rival political parties contended for power at the University of Chile. Boeninger was at the center of the fray as the university's elected rector.
With the support of conservative parties and center-straddling Christian Democrats, he had won university elections three times in the previous four years, defeating leftist forces that supported Chilean President Salvador Allende, a socialist.
Asked in a recent interview if he was against the coup on Sept. 11, 1973, Boeninger said he "shared the feeling that the situation had come to a point of crisis beyond return" but favored another solution. "We were working on the proposal that both the president and Parliament resign, to have elections all over again, to start from scratch."
Although Boeninger was deeply involved in the political process at the time, he did not belong to a party. After the coup, he joined the Christian Democrats, just as the military junta, led by army Gen. Augusto Pinochet, banned all parties.
"I was the last man to be admitted into a political party," Boeninger recalled. "I requested the president of the party at the time, which precisely was Patricio Aylwin, to admit me into the party. . . . It was my way of protesting the shutting down of the political system by the military."
When the new regime intervened in the university administration, Boeninger resigned his post as rector, abruptly ending that phase of his career in public service.
Like a number of prominent Chileans, Boeninger comes from German stock. His father, a white-collar worker, immigrated to Chile from Germany after World War I, and his mother was also of German descent.
Boeninger attended some of Santiago's best secondary schools, then earned a degree in civil engineering at the Catholic University of Chile. He taught calculus and analytical geometry at the Catholic University School of Engineering for two years before serving for a decade as Santiago's first traffic engineer.
Meanwhile, he completed a degree in business and economics at the University of Chile, where he became dean of economics in 1959. Under President Eduardo Frei, from 1964 to 1969, Boeninger was the national budget director. He was elected rector of the University of Chile in 1969.
After the 1973 coup, he worked as a consultant to international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank. In 1975, he spent half a year at UCLA teaching a seminar and studying political science.
He continued to study social sciences at private Chilean research institutions, "trying to sort of bring together economic thinking and political thinking," he said. "And that got me gradually involved in, first of all, bridging the gap of people who had been on different sides of the fence in the previous political conflicts."