The fall of the ″feel-good president″ | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 17.02.2012
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The fall of the "feel-good president"

Christian Wulff was not interested in being a political "alpha male," and his career eventually led him to the presidential office, which he hoped to modernize, rather than the chancellery.

When Christian Wulff was elected in 2010 as the Federal Republic of Germany's 10th president, he was seen by the public as a solid, industrious, trustworthy politician. He had risen through the ranks of his party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), reaching the position of deputy party chair and, as the premier of the state of Lower Saxony, gathering the required experience in actual governing.

After the resignation of Horst Köhler, Chancellor Angela Merkel thought Wulff was the right man for the job of president, and she worked hard to get him in office.

One sociologist called him "feel-good Wulff," and at the time, at the age of 51, his approval ratings were higher than Merkel's. At one point he was even considered a possible competitor for the chancellorship. So it came as a surprise when, in an interview in the summer of 2008, he said lacked the "absolute drive to power and the willingness to subordinate everything else to it."

"The future belongs to the meek"

Wulff wasn't a man who took pleasure in power, he said back then, and didn't have the nerve to make a run for chancellor.

The Wulffs with Merkel

Many had high hopes for Wulff's time in office

"I think it's good that there are more than just 'alpha' males and females on the political stage," he said. "The future belongs to the meek, the peaceful. Maybe that is something that can be said of politics as well, that there are a few who go about things differently."

When he made those remarks, he had already spent five years as the premier of Lower Saxony. Being the political leader of a federal state was more than he, a product of a troubled and difficult childhood, had ever dreamed of.

Wulff's parents separated when he was two and later, after his stepfather's death, he spent most of his childhood caring for his seriously ill mother and younger sister. Still, he managed to study law at university and become a lawyer.

He joined the CDU as a youth, and many have said the party acted as a kind of substitute family for him.

Political marathon man

Wulff gained a reputation as a political "marathon man" after running unsuccessfully for the office of Lower Saxony premier two times and refusing to give up. In his case, the third time was a charm.

When he moved into the Bellevue Palace, the residence provided to the German president, many in Berlin's political circles viewed him rather skeptically since he owed his new position to the strong backing by Merkel.

A federal president who gained the office thanks to his long career in the current governing party seemed to have little in common with stand-out predecessors like Theodor Heuss or Richard von Wiezsäcker, many thought. Even his competition for the job, East German civil rights activist and pastor Joachim Gauck was seen as a better fit for the office. Wulff was seen by many as lacking in charisma and a little too streamlined.

On the other hand, some thought he would bring some fresh air to the rather musty halls of Bellevue with his younger, second wife and children from different relationships. It was the kind of "patchwork" family that reflected modern Germany, many popular magazines opined.

Wulff's wife, Bettina, a one-time corporate spokeswoman, brought with her oft-photographed upper-arm tattoo a new sense of dynamism and style to the palace. Many thought she added a bit of glamour to Wulff's staid and good-boy image.

"Bettina Wulff cuts a better figure in Bellevue Palace," wrote one newspaper.

Rich circles

The extent to which the Wulff's felt attracted to and moved in circles populated by the rich and beautiful during their days in Lower Saxony's capital of Hanover - from the taking out of private loans to accepting holiday trips from wealthy acquaintances - first came to light last December.

Wulff in 1981

Wulff was an a board member in his party's youth arm

The mass-circulation newspaper Bild went public with a report on a 500,000 euro private loan for the Wulff's family house. Just before Christmas, Wulff said he became aware just how badly the private financing of his house looked to the public.

"I should have avoided that, and I should have revealed the private loan to the Lower Saxony parliament back then," he said. "I wasn't straightforward, and I’m sorry about that."

But then further revelations trickled out. Particularly damaging was news about vacations taken with wealthy business friends and the possible quid pro quo behavior that put Wulff increasingly under pressure.

Legacy

The "discount king," as the news magazine Spiegel described Wulff, has left behind a rather small legacy regarding his time as federal president. Politically, little will stay in the minds of Germans, and the office's most powerful tool, rhetoric, was used with little effect by Wulff.

Protester holding a sign with the German word for resignation

Protesters in Germany had repeatedly called for Wulff to resign

His most quoted statement was likely one he made about Islam being a part of German culture alongside Christianity and Judaism. Otherwise, he will likely be most remembered for his criticism of the large-scale purchase of government bonds by the European Central Bank - and for the cloud under which he left office.

When asked about what make him suitable for the office of president, Wulff often answered that he wanted to bring people together. He was a bridge builder, he said, not a polarizing figure.

But his record will show that he actually turned out to be quite the opposite.

Author: Bernd Gräßler / jam
Editor: Sean Sinico

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