The 'real' politics of the late Helmut Schmidt

The Guadelupe Conference of January 1979--From left to right: Helmut Schmidt, Jimmy Carter, Valery Giscard d'Estaing and James Callaghan

In my grammar school days, there was a program that I watched avidly on Saturday mornings, when cartoons and fantasy-type shows like Bugs Bunny and Batman started to lose their allure for a youngster whose mind was starting to move on to other things. It was a series of half-hour programs that dealt specifically with biographies of historical personages like FDR, Churchill, Einstein, Gandhi and Pope John XXIII. Called “Biography,” these programs were hosted by noted CBS newsman Mike Wallace and they were straightforward presentations of different historical lives.

Thanks to Mike Wallace’s stirring dramatic narration in “Biography,” the lives he depicted in those programs got somebody like me really interested in the lives of real people, people who made a mark upon their times and our world. It moved me to read more and more deeply about these people, especially those who lived in my time (a thick, green and gold embossed reference book called Current Biography also was enlisted in this effort).


Back in St. Nicholas of Tolentine Grammar School in the Bronx, our teachers—as part of our history and civics lessons—had us learn about the various countries, their leaders, their official titles and what it was that made them important. In those days, we had to memorize a veritable smorgasbord of the names and positions of history’s notables that were assembled into very long lists for our edification. (It is amazing to think of now, how our teachers—including the nuns—taught us so much with what little resources they had—but made us learn, they did.)

To ensure that we really learned what we were supposed to, they had us summarize what we saw on the nightly news (in my case, NBC Nightly News with John Chancellor) and what we read in The New York Times (with our own compilation of top stories). The teachers required that all students have a parental signature at the top of our loose-leaf sheet of news briefs as proof that the work was done—and hopefully digested. We had no choice but to pay attention to the real people that appeared on the screen or were written about in the newspaper; we had to do it, but in my case, in was an easy acquiescence.  

So when news came this week (on Nov. 10, 2015) about the death of the former chancellor of (what then was) West Germany, Helmut Schmidt at the age of 96, many memories came back to me. I remembered him from those photos that were so ubiquitous of the time, when world leaders met at summit meetings to discuss the current affairs and problems that they each had to face, whether in concert or separately. I remember him standing there, squarely amongst his contemporaries like President Gerald R. Ford (or Jimmy Carter), French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and the British Prime Minister James Callaghan.

But in reviving those memories, I realized something else: Helmut Schmidt was probably one of the last of those world leaders of the 1970s who are gone now; and moreover, I realized that leaders of his type that used to be commonplace are of a kind that has pretty much disappeared. In reading through the various obituaries that have been written about him this week, they all attested to the fact that he wasn’t the “artificial” type of politician, the kind of which we are saturated with today, who pay obsessive attention to physical appearance, polls and opposition “research.” 

He wouldn’t pass for what goes as a politician these days, one who aspires to reach for the lowest common denominator in the coarsest way possible in order to get the great prize: the people’s votes. He was a throwback to the times when politicians were people who actually had led lives first and did not need opinion polls to tell them what to think, what to say, how to look or how to appear before an audience. No “factory-processed” politician was he: if he wanted to wear a sailor’s cap, he did. If he wanted to smoke his pipes and cigarettes, he did, whether it was politically correct or not. (As a matter of fact, he was renowned for being such a habitual smoker: it was said that he smoked all the time and everywhere, from a television interview studio to a movie theater. It was said that he smoked one every seven minutes and that his daily intake tallied some 40 smokes or more. How he lived to such an advanced age while smoking so much is a marvel. Because of that habit, he and his wife Hannelore—who was called “Loki”—became the couple known as: “Loki and Smoki.”)

It did not matter to him if his views and opinions offended or not, he spoke the truth as he saw it. And it was not for nothing that he was called in his political life, Schmidt-Schnauze, “Schmidt the Lip.” In a sense, he had a Trumanesque quality to him: he called them as he saw them.

If he was a politician, he was also a journalist and a student of history; he could not be otherwise. In retirement, he wrote scores of books and was a publisher of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, through whose pages he continued to extrapolate on the affairs of the world around him. He was of a species that have now practically died out: that of politician-intellectual. He had a foot in both worlds. He was a person who (like Theodore Roosevelt) jousted in the political arena and did not regret it. At the same time, he was a politician who gave serious thought to the world he lived in and to the world around him; for him, political life was more than just votes. Those two worlds co-existed within him and he saw no problem with that.

He had no time for politicians whose only objective was just to get elected; he looked askance at “visionary” politicians when there was the reality to be dealt with. (He once wryly pointed out the link between politicians and journalists: “Politicians and journalists share a sad fate. They have to talk about things today that they will only fully understand tomorrow.”) And being German, he knew his past (his country’s as well as his own—later in life it was revealed he had a Jewish grandfather and he himself was a non-practicing Lutheran) but more importantly, he worked for—and looked toward—the future. Like JFK, he was an “idealist without illusions” and was misunderstood for both.

Even in old age, when he became almost entirely deaf, and when walking, had to do so with a cane, he still believed in what he had tried to practice, a politics of realism. As Cameron Abadi recounted in his appreciation in Foreign Policy (“A Last Cigarette With Helmut Schmidt”), the politician-statesman had no time for those with pie-in-the-sky ideas or with those who bashed the establishment or “elites” who had the skills and the knowledge to keep government functioning: “Elites are an important part of all political systems. They have responsibilities that they need to carry out. All successful leaders—from Kennedy to Sadat to De Gaulle—had authority.” He also had advice for those politicians whose grandiose visions lead them to absurd flights of fancy: “If you have visions, you should go see a doctor.”

This is what I thought about this week when I heard about the death of a 1970s leader I had to learn about way back in grammar school. He was far from a perfect human being—no one is—but I can’t help to think that our political candidates today (especially those running for the American presidency), with their prepackaged everything could learn something from the likes of Helmut Schmidt, the incessant cigarette smoker, gifted pianist, sailor and statesman-intellectual who endured a painful past while working toward a better though realistic future.

They could learn to become something they long forgotten about and are afraid of being once again: a human being. He was the kind of historical figure that I once saw on “Biography” and read about in Current Biography. If a kid in a long-ago Bronx grammar school could come to understand this, it shouldn’t be that hard for a prepackaged candidate of today to learn that, too. Politicians and candidates need not have to smoke scores of cigarettes, play the piano or sail a boat, to impress the voting public, but they need to act in a way that “old-school” politicians like Helmut Schmidt did. And then, perhaps our politics could finally get real. Democracy—and politics—would all be the better for it.

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