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`The Gerd Show' livens up staid German politics

A public that had grown weary of Schroeder is abuzz over his memoir.

October 29, 2006|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — He's only been gone a year. It seems much longer. But Gerhard Schroeder is back with a pen in his hand and a new memoir under his arm -- about time, too, because the hors d'oeuvre circuit is in need of his feisty glamour, and judging by magazine covers and talk shows, the former German chancellor's still got juice.

Germans had grown tired of him and his peerless swagger, but now many are happy to glimpse his bushy eyebrows, cigars and suits so well tailored and ironed that you'd think he'd break into a hundred pieces if he bumped into something.

Schroeder has whirled into the limelight with his gravelly baritone and a 544-page book, "Decisions: My Life in Politics." The musings aren't as revelatory as critics and historians might hope. But they do, if for a brief spell, enliven what has otherwise been, except for a few spy and military scandals, a staid political season marked by a stalled coalition government.

Der Spiegel, which excerpted portions of the book, summed up the tome like this: "Schroeder's stint as chancellor, from 1998 to 2005, marked the coming of age of the new Germany. The country took an increasingly prominent role on the international stage -- be it in the Balkans, the war on terror or Berlin's outspoken opposition to the Iraq war. Schroeder's [memoirs] provide a unique glimpse into that transformation."

This is the same Schroeder whose ethics were questioned when he left office and immediately accepted a high-paying post with a Russian energy firm whose project in Germany he had endorsed as chancellor. It is no surprise that the memoir is kind to his longtime friend Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. It's a bit suspicious, though, of the White House and President Bush's "God-fearing" ideology; after all this is the Schroeder who wept on Sept. 11, 2001, and a year later based his reelection campaign on opposition to the war Bush led in Iraq.

Schroeder has landed back in the public consciousness with his media savvy intact. The press has dubbed his return as "The Gerd Show." Caricaturists have had a blast; columnists are wistful and malevolent. Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats wish Schroeder, who has used his publicity tour to criticize the woman who replaced him, would just sign a few more books and disappear.

But Schroeder, 62, is out to enhance his place in history. He wasn't a statesman in the mold of his immediate predecessor as chancellor, Helmut Kohl. He was more political strategist than visionary, a leader who began overhauls to the massive German welfare state, known as Agenda 2010, but left the transformation unfinished. And then, with a year to go in his second term, Schroeder, a Social Democrat, surprised the nation and called for early elections in 2005, losing a tight contest and departing bitter.

"Much of this is trivial," the daily Kieler Nachrichten said of the memoir, "the self-reflections of an aging man who is having difficulty dealing with the loss of power." The Westfaelischer Anzeiger said: "A man of power who was already thoroughly vain during his time in office has shed some lucrative tears over a purportedly better era. That can be informative and entertaining, but it's no reason to get angry or mourn along with him."

Schroeder said last week that he was not fixated on political fate: "Some people now say, 'He hasn't come to terms with it.' But I have. I am completely at peace with myself." In the memoir, he writes, "I was right with [Agenda 2010].... The current coalition government can reap the first fruit.... It has become a worldwide symbol for the reform capability of Germany."

Schroeder writes that he was accustomed to protests, but was particularly stung by a 2003 union rally against his policies: "I wasn't impressed by those who whistled against me, but there was one banner that filled me with consternation. I was defamed as an 'antisocial desperado.' That offended me personally very much."

The book has reflective and poetic passages, reminding readers that the former chancellor knew a thing or two about human nature.

"I turned on the television," he wrote about the Sept. 11 attacks. "The images I saw deeply upset me.... I remember seeing desperate people jumping out of the windows of the Twin Towers. I remember people who were running for their lives on the streets, and I remember my own tears, cried out of sympathy for those innocent people who were exposed to the inferno. Helplessness and rage at those who did this were my first reactions."

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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