I was on hand Monday night in Berlin with Angela Merkel and a tent full of luminaries to hear Bill Clinton give former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl the night of his life, making a case for him as hands-down the most important European statesman of the second half of the 20th Century. Not to dismiss Kohl's flaws or failures, but all in all I say Bill Clinton is right.
Kohl, 81, once so robust that his eating (and girth) were staples of TV comedians in Germany, looked waxy and weak, age and a litany of health problems giving him the look of a man whose obituaries we are going to be reading sooner rather than later. Kohl may not have much time left, but whatever time he does have will be suffused with pride based on the eloquent tribute Clinton paid to him on the occasion of Kohl being presented with the American Academy's Henry A. Kissinger Prize (Henry the K. was on hand as well).
Kohl, chancellor from 1982 to 1998, mentioned three times in his own remarks how amazing it was to have a former American president right there in a tent near the banks of the Großer Wannsee and, apparently overcome with emotion, he neglected even a passing mention of Germany's current chancellor, Merkel, even though she was seated nearby.
Clinton's talk was anything but perfunctory. I have met the man many times and had many conversations with him. I have also caught many a Bill Clinton speech live, there in the room, and as familiar as much was, the head movements, the cadences, the off-the-cuff eloquence and deft use of repetition, the nugget of his talk was something altogether surprising.
Clinton came right out and said that as president, he often leaned on Kohl's judgement. This is actually a somewhat startling admission, but on issues like giving money to Russia to bring troops home from the Baltics and the future of NATO, Kohl's perspective shaped Clinton's thinking in fundamental ways, Clinton revealed on Monday night.
"All I had to do was follow Helmut Kohl's lead," Clinton said. "I can't tell you how many times I knew what the right thing was because of what he had already done."
Such topics as bringing Soviet troops home from the Baltics might sound dusty and dull at this point. Not to me: I was in Vilnius, Lithuania, in the summer of 1992 and went inside the Parliament building to report an article for the San Francisco Chronicle, where I worked then. The Parliament was surrounded by barbed wire and Soviet tanks. Lithuania could never be free without housing being built back in Russia so these soldiers could be sent home. The money sent to Russia by Germany and the U.S. helped pay for peace -- and not everyone would have made that call, certainly not the Tea Party frauds good at jacking up nut jobs with speeches but not about thinking wisely about life in the real world.
"The 21st century in Europe really began on his watch," Clinton declared. "It began with his (support) for German reunification, with his generous and determined support for a democratic Russia, for European unification politically and economically, for bringing other nations into NATO and defining a 21st Century mission for NATO, so that it didn't just become a hollow shell of people going to meetings and sharing platitudes, but actually an organization with a mission that helped make Europe united, whole, democratic and free for the first time since nation-states rose on the European continent. It had never happened before."
I have lived in Berlin most of the time since 1999 and written a regular political column for the Berliner Zeitung, East Berlin's top daily, and can attest that Clinton was right to cast Kohl as a kind of forgotten man of German politics. I'm no fan of the Christian Democrats and center-right economic policy, but I do think that Kohl handled a period of decisive political shifts with more vision than he tends to get credit for showing.
"Helmut Kohl has been a good personal friend to me and to the secretary of state, I have on good authority," Clinton said, drawing warm laughter with the reference to Hillary. "He's been a wonderful friend of Americans. But most of all he was a friend to the people who put him in office, the German people, and to young Germans who have been born since he left office and who may not even know who he is.
"I ask those of you here never to allow anyone to take for granted the fact that at a pivotal moment in the history of Europe and the history of the world, Germany was called upon to answer five big questions and by great good fortune and good judgement a man who was big in more than physical stature answered all five correctly. Never take that for granted and never squander that legacy."