No, I am not talking about the Vatican or the next Coen Brothers movie. I am talking about old men saving countries.
The man that comes to my mind can be described as follows: practicing Catholic with a pragmatic mindset that enables him to reach across the aisle; lawyer by training and politician by vocation who experiences personal tragedy — the loss of his wife — early in his career. That would be Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor after WWII, and those are not the only attributes he shares with Joe Biden.
For one, there is the unlikely comeback. Adenauer held multiple offices during the democratic Weimar Republic after WWI and was forced into retirement by the Nazis. He was arrested multiple times, went into hiding, and narrowly avoided deportation to a concentration camp. Nobody thought that at age 73 — considered biblical in 1949 — he’d be fit for office anymore, let alone for the Herculean task of rebuilding a democratic society after 12 years of totalitarianism. And here is where the comparison becomes a bit bumpy. Joe Biden never had to go into hiding during the past four years, and the most totalitarian element about that time was the total absence of governing competence.
Adenauer was expected to not be more than a transitional figure, and doctors told him that being chancellor for one or two years was definitely in his cards. He beat all expectations, got re-elected three times, and stepped down from the chancellorship after 14 years. His state funeral in 1967 was one of the first major political events I remember watching as a kid on the black and white TV in my parents’ house in Germany.
While not everyone liked Adenauer’s stuffy conservatism, he was known for having not a single nationalist bone in his body and a life-long visceral aversion against Prussian militarism. His reputation helped him to rebuild trust between Germany and the international community after WWII. Given the fact that Nazi Germany had invaded every single neighboring country (except Switzerland), this was a huge accomplishment.
Joe Biden, just like Adenauer, will have a lot of trust building to do and has the same advantage of coming across as the grandfather in chief who has seen it all in politics — the good, the bad and the ugly. Still, trust building ain’t easy when the amount of lies produced by your predecessor is as breathtakingly high as the number of people willing to go along with them. This is another challenge Biden shares with Adenauer.
Adenauer managed to bring people together who had been bitterly opposed to each other during the Nazi years and convinced them to work for and with his government. To be sure, there wasn’t much “working through the past” in the 1950s, and the booming economy did its part to keep people’s minds focused on making money rather than amends.
Vergangenheitsbewältigung didn’t happen until the 1960s, and it took until 1979 before “Holocaust” became word of the year in West Germany. So maybe deal with COVID-19 and climate change first and leave the reckoning with the treasonous Trump administration to next generation historians? That’s for Joe Biden to decide.
Adenauer retired from the chancellorship when he was 87. This will be exactly Joe Biden’s age at the end of his second term. By then, according to Republican doomsday forecasts, we all will earn the same meager salary, address each other with “comrade” and send our kids to Marxism-Leninism study camps over the summer. It is noteworthy that even Adenauer’s own conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), initially thought that a healthy dose of socialism was the appropriate response to fascist disaster.
In the end however, socialism under Adenauer was nothing more than capitalism with universal health care, unemployment insurance and state-funded public education. The concept is still alive. In economic textbooks it has been dubbed Rhineland capitalism because Adenauer was from Cologne and spoke with a thick Rhenish accent. Biden’s economic plan has nothing to do with socialism and, if anything, has a striking resemblance to Rhineland capitalism. But if by his second term Joe has had enough and turns it over to his VP from California, she could call it La La Land capitalism.