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An Uncommonly Civil Mini-Crisis

I've got to hand it to German politicians.  The election on Sunday led to no clear winner, no mandate.  Emotions ran high -- well, as high as they generally run in Germany, which is no hotbed of hotheadedness.  Just after the vote, the leaders of all five major parties got together on national television and, in the presence of two journalist-moderators, and debated each other about the future of the country.  Already, that had the American part of me saying "They did what now?  Jesus, does that ever sound like a recipe for getting pulled off-message!"

But all of the leaders showed up, none of them had a teleprompter, and they agreed to be quizzed by journalists.  At least some of the time, they actually more-or-less answered on anothers' questions.  Fancy that!  And you know what?  They debated Serious Issues, and remained perfectly civil throughout.  Everyone called each other Mr. or Mrs., or Kollege (my colleague), or used the appropriate title.  There were a few interruptions, and some heated moments, but that was it.  The only real breach of etiquette was that Chancellor Schroeder seemed a bit too brassy and defiant.  But overall, they talked about the possibility of forming coalitions, and their parties' ideas about how to solve Germany's problems, and other grown-up things.

And it's continued that way in the days since.  Just tonight I watched some of a debate between Social Democrat "Super-Minister" Wolfgang Clement and Christian Wulff, the Christian Democrat Minister-President of Lower Saxony (which corresponds roughly to a state governor in the U.S.).  They also managed to discuss the difficult issues of coalition politics and their parties' positions fluently and spontaneously, without any personal attacks, screaming, or fumbling for words.

Granted, these are two of Germany's most gifted politicos.  Wulff's precision-tuned haircut, shiny little glasses and eternally confident half-smile mark him as the smug class nerd.  He seems to love speaking on camera, and has a gift for mixing salty little jibes with statesmanlike platitudes.  Clement, with his endless nose, sad face, and downward-crinkling eyes, looks so much like a basset hound that you keep expecting him to lift a leg and pee on his seat.  But still, his no-nonsense gruffness inspires confidence.

I hear a lot of bitching about politicians in Germany, but I am tempted to say "compared to what?"  Look, politicians all over the world are criticized by all humans for more-or-less the same reasons, except in those countries where criticizing politicians can lead to the loss of fingernails.  But compare these folks to American politicians, most of whom spend their time robotically repeating about 15 poll-tested catchphrases ("death tax"; "turn back the clock on civil rights"; "a woman's right to choose"; "smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud", etc.).

The best U.S. politicians are the ones who are able to actually pick the catch phrase that's closest to an answer to whatever question they've just been asked.  The others just choose them at random.    Watching the average American politician be interviewed is like watching a human being fail the Turing test.  In order to have a real debate about the Iraq war, we just had to import two Brits to New York City, and they had to resort to calling each other slugs and accusing each other of various levels of familiarity with waste-disposal facilities. 

So far, during this time of moderate upheaval, I have yet to see any German politician begin screaming at or insulting any other politician, and most of them seem to have intelligent things to say about the challenges facing their country, even when, of necessity, their statements are often a bit vague.  Hell, the conservative candidate just ran on a platform in which she promised to raise everyone's taxes.  That's something you don't see every day.  Judged by the standard of politicians in other countries -- and not by comparison to impossibly noble philosopher-princes whom nobody would elect anyway -- the average German politician strikes me as unusually forthright and articulate.

Plus, post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer gave humanity a political quote that can stand with the best of anything Churchill said.  When asked why he appeared to have changed his position on an issue, he responded "Was kuemmert mich mein dummes Geschwaetz von Gestern?" -- roughly, "What do I care about my silly chatter from yesterday?"