Like many people with a job, I am an extremely lazy man. But I do have to do some reporting, and yesterday I went to a press conference with the German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle. When I say “went to”, of course I mean that I watched it on TV.
I was in the same building. It’s just that I had already taken my shoes off, and one of the other office people had brought in cake, again. Why do people who work in offices insist on filling them up with cake? No one eats cake in the real world, but something about the office environment acts as a cake magnet – maybe it’s the ring-binders, or the pervasive paranoia – and scientific studies have shown that if you don’t have your fair share, you have to eat your way through a bank of baked cherries, sponge and caster sugar at Christmas.
Anyway – Vice-Chancellor Westerwelle is now well-established as a comedy character in Germany, and not just because of the English-speaking albatross with which he has saddled himself. His comparison between unemployment and late-Roman decadence continues to raise a smile when two German reporters meet and don’t have an easy joke to hand.
But having now watched him in the flesh, on TV, for over an hour, I think I know why he is still derided so much, and why his personal ratings have tanked since he took office last October. Whenever a critical question is put to him, which is the kind of thing that happens a lot when you’re a politician, he twitches irritably and gets defensive, and then often makes a joke that is invariably mildly offensive.
Yesterday, having admitted that not everything had run smoothly for the government in the past year, one reporter asked him what he had learned from being in office. As the reporter was unsatisfied by his wittering about how he “prefers to look to the future,” she asked him again, to which he answered that he’d learnt “that you shouldn’t spread self-doubt in the group dynamics of a press conference.” Bemused murmuring followed. When the reporter said she didn’t understand what that means, he replied, “Oh yes you do. There is no doubt that you understood that.”
Many people think this kind of thing means that he is no good for a representative job like foreign minister – defensive twitchiness followed by prickly jokes are not qualities you necessarily look for in your most senior diplomat.
But apparently people are wrong, because he has achieved some foreign policy success, having successfully built on partnerships with Turkey and Russia, and charmed the smaller EU countries, who sometimes feel left out. His strained, naive, slightly defensive air clearly goes down well with Benelux bureaucrats. It’s a match made in heaven.