Katrina and Angela offer hope for a better relationship between the United States and Germany. Katrina, who was no lady, nevertheless prompted the German government to open its strategic oil reserves to the United States, and Angela Merkel, a fast friend of Washington, is on course, maybe, to succeed a spoiler of the German friendship with the United States.
William R. Timken Jr., the new American ambassador to Berlin, received a warm welcome when he arrived to take up his duties last week, delivering a letter from President Bush thanking the German people for their assistance in the wake of the storm that battered our Gulf Coast. Two planes of the Luftwaffe, loaded with food and medical supplies, were dispatched to New Orleans.
Ambassador Timken's reception last week contrasted sharply with the roughing up he got in the German newspapers when his appointment was announced several months ago. Relations between the two governments have been less than warm for a long time. "In a way, the disastrous diversion was heaven sent for Timken," observes der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine. "Many Teutonic eyebrows have been raised by the impression that Timken only got his job by being one of President George W. Bush's many 'Super Rangers,' a somewhat hokey Bushism designating those who have raised at least $300,000 for the Grand Old Party."
More to the point, perhaps, some Germans figured that the new ambassador's company, which makes roller bearings in Ohio, prospers at their expense because of protective tariffs that kept German competitors out of American markets. But the rain that accompanies high winds can soften hard feelings into something like sympathy. Particularly in need of softening was the outburst by Jurgen Trittin, the Green environmental minister who characterized the damage wrought by Katrina as the fault of President Bush. "The American president is closing his eyes to the economic and human costs his land and the world economy are suffering under the natural catastrophes like Katrina and because of neglected environmental policies," he wrote in a German newspaper. Few scientists who study weather, even several passionate decriers of global warning, share Herr Trittin's eccentric science. He might just as well have blamed Prometheus' theft of fire from the heavens for global warming.
When Ambassador Timken was asked about the minister's remarks, he exposed the exploitation for what it was. "I would hope people are far more concerned about the people suffering, who have lost family members and houses, than about getting into scientific arguments that go on and on."
Many Germans feel superior to Americans (and everybody else), despite the stagnation of their welfare-state economy with its stunning 12 percent unemployment (which would set off riots here), and Angela Merkel wants to ride to the rescue, not only of Germany but of German-American relations. Her Christian Democrats like Americans, unlike some of the parties in the coalition ruling Germany now. She understands that, superior or not, Germans have to make their economy more like ours to put sauerbraten in every pot. She has even teased the Germans into discussing the flat tax.
In a debate with Chancellor Schroeder, she seemed comfortable paraphrasing Ronald Reagan's words, if not his style. She asked voters to answer a question similar to the question Mr. Reagan posed to Americans in his debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980: "Are you better off now than you were seven years ago?" The chancellor, like the Gipper, is a great communicator, and she's not. She's a woman who's regarded as "one of the boys." She has tried to soften her image, but the physicist who grew up in East Germany is a "tough cookie," and not even Helmut Kohl's description of her as "mein maedchen" -- my little girl -- has changed very much. She's become the Teflon candidate, and Herr Schroeder hasn't cut into her 11-point lead in the public-opinion polls.
Political emancipation in Germany, as one woman in her own party observed, comes with a price: "conforming to the masculine." (Sound familiar?) Certain feminists say she doesn't understand the problems of working mothers because she's not one, an argument much like the notion that only a whale could review "Moby Dick."
Conservatives in Germany traditionally suffer a gender gap, which in this case suggests a large majority of male voters will make the difference in her election. Nevertheless, she's courting women with aggressive appeals to improving child care. Our presidents, of course, can't say out loud what they think about elections in Germany or anywhere else in the world, but the diplomatic gossip persists that a trans-Atlantic relationship between Chancellor Merkel and President Bush could be a romance like the one Margaret Thatcher had with Ronald Reagan. We're a long way from St. Valentine's Day, but stranger things have happened.