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Opinion: A Voice Among Many

After five years as Germany's head of state, President Johannes Rau will step down on Wednesday. By doing so, the 73-year-old also ends a political career that spanned almost half a century.

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Bye for now

It's impossible and inappropriate to judge a politician's significance and importance during his time in office: Political considerations are bound to influence the decision-making process. Therefore people will have to decide in the future whether Johannes Rau was an outstanding president. All that's certain now is that he filled out the role without standing out.

Integrating foreigners into German society was one of the most important themes of Rau's presidency. During his first speech as head of state, he already declared that he wanted to be not only the president of all Germans, but also that of all people living in Germany. It was a positive statement that could hardly be missed: He wanted to be the person foreigners in Germany could turn to as well.

"Unite rather than divide" -- Rau's motto can be taken literally for his entire political career -- was not a bad slogan to pick for a German head of state, who has little actual power and can only try to influence the political process through his speeches. At the same time, it's a motto that can lead to a level of detachment -- a risk Rau didn't always manage to avoid.

Lacking long-lasting success

That might also be the reason why some people see Rau as a president, who tried to stimulate debates but failed to do so with long-lasting success. His critical remarks regarding the use of gene technology seem to fit in that category.

He took an important position worthy of debate by admonishing people not to do the technically possible until all ethical concerns had been dispelled. He participated in the discussion with the force of his personality and the authority of his office. It was the right thing to do, but changed little about the fact that his voice remained only one of many on the subject.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder probably didn't like Rau's remarks on the topic as he himself wants to move ahead more swiftly. But Schröder probably took some comfort in Rau's support in the area of foreign relations and especially Germany's opposition to the war in Iraq. Still, Rau never had a problem with the non-partisan role that comes with the office while not ignoring his Social Democratic roots.

50 years of public service

Rau's departure will also be a departure from active political life. Almost 50 years ago, he entered that world on the municipal level before moving on to the legislature of North-Rhine-Westphalia and serving as premier of Germany's most populous state for two decades.

In that position, Rau became the exemplary Landesvater, or father of the state. He tried to continue in this role on the national stage -- with moderate success. That wasn't his fault, however, and should rather be seen as a diminished need for a classic father figure to lead the country. People often say that Germany has been lucky with her presidents so far. That assertion might be debatable. But in Rau's case, it certainly wasn't bad luck, either.

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