Herr Kohl Meets His Watergate
Birnbaum, Norman, The Nation
Chancellor Helmut Kohl's visit to Washington last November confirmed my view that modern politics is indistinguishable from theater of the abusrd. His press spokesman announced that the Chancellor and President Reagan had discussed the detalis of the forth-coming talks on arms negotiations between Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Secretary of State George Shultz. Clearly, the announcement was designed to show doubting West Germans how influential their government is with its senior ally. It was followed, however, by a declaration from a "senior State Department official" that there had been no details to discuss, since the Administration hadn't formulated its positions for the talks. He was discreet enough not to mention that mastery of detail is not, after all, our President's strong point. In that regard, at least, trans-Atlantic solidarity is firm: the same may be said of Kohl. For the moment, however, Kohl has other and larger problems.
"I intend to fit out Herr Kohl exactly as we did the other gentlemen." With those words, the managing director of Friedrich-Karl Flick's multibillion-dollar industrial empire reported to his boss his plans for welcoming the new leader of the Christian Democratic Union following his selection in 1973. The manager, Eberhard von Brauchitsch, has since been dismissed by the firm, under indictment for bribing two former Ministers of Economics from the Free Democratic Party. The sums dispensed by Flick in the recent past are impressive. Fifteen million marks went to the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian ally, Franz-Josef Strauss's Christian Social Union. Six million marks went to the Free Democrats. Four million marks went to the Social Democrats. Much of this money was given in cash (a half-million to Kohl during his stint as opposition leader). The secret gifts violated laws requiring political parties to disclose the sources of their funding. All of it was provided with the explicit intention of influencing government and party policies, the composition of parliamentary committees--indeed, the entire public life of the Federal Republic. Flick may have induced the Free Democrats to abandon their coalition with the Social Democrats in 1982.
The public was shaken by the disclosures of the extent to which corruption in Bonn has become a routine affair. Defending himself before a parliamentary committee, Kohl said that everyone took money, even if it was illegal. He and his party have sought to depict their critics as agents of a plot to undermine the authority of the Federal Republic. This contemptible defense has evoked derision even among the many Wst German conservatives who always give authority the benefit of the doubt. The left, for its part, is astonished. Its crudest depictions of the role of capital in politics seem understatements. The Social Democrats are dreadfully embarrassed. At least two former S.P.D. ministers are under a cloud. West German democracy is undergoing a profound crisis of confidence, and until the Flick revelations and the ensuing prosecutions run their course, no end is in sight. The major parties have now agreed, apparently, to terminate the parliamentary inquiry. The S.P.D. is making a large mistake by identifying itself in this way with a system that cannot stand public scrutiny.
That these matters have come to light at all owes everything to the tenacity of a few Social Democratic back-benchers, to the honesty of a few prosecutors in the face of threats to their careers from higher-ups, and to the weekly Der Spiegel, which obtained the documents and published them in defiance of the government's over-up. The affair isn't like Watergate, which brought down a politically strong President. The governing coalition of the Christian Democrats, the Christian social Union and the Free Democrats was already in trouble and now may be seriously wounded. Kohl himself may or may not be indicted, but the possibility that he will have to step down in the spring is considerable. …