I’m a big fan of old smokers, too. Of course, I also find it life-affirming to see a man sucking tar into his lungs and making declarations on world affairs into his nineties. Everyone enjoys the heartening sight of a craggy, watery-eyed old man laughing in the face of cancer and tweaking the nose of emphysema. For that alone, ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt deserves his status as the sacred cow of political punditry.
But then, as we found with Clint Eastwood the other day, dinosaurs do apparently get old after all. They don’t just live on and on, preserved by endearing bitterness, still sharp as a tack. So this week Schmidt gave a preposterous interview to the newspaper he nominally still publishes, Die Zeit, all about his favourite country: China.
Schmidt loves China. He reveres its ancient civilization. He loves their tiny little trees. He’s been there so many times he has literally lost count, and he has something important to say about that Tiananmen Square incident back in 1989. That was, you see, all a big misunderstanding. The Chinese army were “defending themselves” because people were throwing stones at them, and since they were soldiers who were “trained to shoot,” that’s what they did.
He also thinks the Red Cross estimates of 2,600 deaths were “wildly exaggerated” – why? Because he spoke to three ambassadors who said different. For the rest of the interview, Schmidt loses himself in a confused comparison of Mao, Hitler, and other murdering dictators in history, unsure whether to compare or contrast. In one moment he says, “We should not judge China by liberal European standards,” but then he says, “After all Europe also had a lot of violence and human rights abuses.” And by the end he can’t answer the question of whether Auschwitz “justified intervention” by the Allies. At one point the interviewer, Die Zeit Editor-in-Chief Giovanni di Lorenzo, says, “You might notice that I keep having difficulties following you.”
Anyway, I don’t wanna lay into the guy, just because he appears to forget what he was talking about half way through sentences. When I’m 93, I’ll be happy if I can remember my own name. But maybe we shouldn’t take him so seriously anymore. There comes a time in every great man’s life, however great it was, when we should no longer let him do a comedy chair routine in front of millions of people and/or justify mass murder.