GWEN IFILL: Only weeks ago, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was in his element, front and center at a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall. Literally and figuratively, Kohl towered over modern German politics. His place in history, as the leader who reunited East and West Germany, was assured.
But last month, Kohl admitted he accepted at least a million dollars in unreported political donations while he was chancellor and head of Germany's largest conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union. Kohl resigned today as the party's honorary chairman.
Kohl, who for 16 years until his 1998 defeat, was Germany's longest-serving chancellor, quit only after he was suspended from the party, and he did not relinquish his seat in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag. Kohl has refused to reveal the source of the contributions he admits were illegal. "The donors had my word they were anonymous," he told a German newspaper. "I keep my promises."
But the scandal has engulfed his party. Wolfgang Schaeuble, the CDU's current leader, has also admitted taking secret money. Schaeuble, who's been paralyzed since an assassination attempt a decade ago, also offered his resignation today. It was rejected.
In all, CDU Party members have received at least $17 million from German companies and arms dealers. The money was channeled into secret bank accounts. The government, headed by current Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, head of the Social Democratic Party, has called for a full investigation of the scandal. At least one state election, the Schroeder government suspects, was influenced by illegal money.
GWEN IFILL: For two perspectives on the corruption scandal in Germany, we turn to Jackson Janes, executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and Josef Joffe, columnist and editorial page editor for the Munich newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung. He is a visiting professor at Stanford University's institute for international studies. Jackson Janes, has Helmut Kohl fallen from grace effectively?
JACKSON JANES: I don't think he's fallen from grace. His accomplishments in history are not going to be changed by this current problem that he's having, but I think his reputation as someone who is in control at all times and thinking about how to push Germany forward has been tainted by the means with which some of the monies and the support that he had was used. I think that's going to be a problem for him, a footnote in the history that will be written about him.
GWEN IFILL: The same question to you, Josef Joffe. Has Helmut Kohl fallen from grace?
JOSEF JOFFE: I would disagree with my friend Jack Janes. I think we have a similar problem here as with Richard Nixon, who did all these wonderful things, peace with China, detente with the Soviets, and then this little thing happened, Watergate, and it took him 25 years to be rehabilitated so I think Mr. Kohl is in heavy, heavy trouble, especially since what he is allegedly done is the immortal sin of democracy. He sold influence for money and used the money to buy influence and power for himself.
GWEN IFILL: You're saying this is the German equivalent of Watergate?
JOSEF JOFFE: Absolutely.
GWEN IFILL: While... Josef Joffe, I wonder if there is any proof of what you just said, that he used the money for himself.
JOSEF JOFFE: Well, we don't know that yet. That will have to wait for a more diligent investigation than the press provides. But can I tell you one thing where he has clearly contravened against the law, and that's by playing Don Corleone and saying I'm not going to divulge who gave the money to me. The law in Germany says quite clearly, anybody who gives any more than 20,000 Deutsche Marks, which is about $11,000, has to divulge his name. So at this point he is in contradiction. If they lift his immunity, he is still a parliamentarian, he can be prosecuted.
GWEN IFILL: Jackson Janes, we're talking about a million dollars just to Helmut Kohl; we're talking about money that was carried off by his deputies in suitcases and his admission that he broke the law and his refusal to, I guess, be accountable for it. What do you say to that? How did the German democratic experiment come to this?
JACKSON JANES: I think basically what Kohl is saying is that he was using the support, the money he received, the donations he got, for purposes that were of a higher value. In other words, he transgressed a law that was actually passed while he was chancellor and wound up transgressing it for purposes that had to do with the strength of his party and the building up of his party in the East and part of Germany after unification. So I think he justifies the means as saying that the ends were more important. And there's going to be some fallout from this. They're going to change laws. There's going to be a thorough running around or trying to figure out how these kinds of holes can be stopped in the future. But I think that basically the problem is that this reflects a long-term relationship between government, the private sector and various different lobby groups that was somewhat to the point of being incestuous over the last 40 years and it worked pretty well throughout these years to make Germany a very successful democracy. I don't think the democracy has been undermined by this, but I think there will be fairly significant questions raised as to how they can make sure this doesn't happen again.
GWEN IFILL: Are the questions going to be about personal corruption or political corruption?
JACKSON JANES: Well, I think they are going to be about whether or not the laws… They are going to be about transparency. They are going to be about the need for making sure that decisions taken are going to be as transparent as possible. That, in effect, is going to be both an adjudical question as well as a legal question. The real issue I think, and maybe Joe has some thoughts about that as well, is what impact does this have to the citizenry of Germany, do they feel that they have a certain amount of stake in the democracy and willing to participate in?
GWEN IFILL: What's your thought about that?
JOSEF JOFFE: Well, the answer of the citizenry seems to be quite clear. And if you wanted to shift the debate from the philosophical legal side to the political side then the story is even more devastating, because if you go back a couple of months, the current chancellor, the Social Democrat Schroeder, was in the dumps. He had lost one regional election after another. There was serious talk about him being unseated by somebody else. Now he is zooming in space. He has the highest popularity ratings since he became chancellor. So what I'm saying here is that the Christian Democratic Party is being destroyed by this in a very political sense, therefore, the consequences are going to be very tough. That party will have to really clean house, heads will roll, not even the current chairman, Schaeuble is safe, to get out of the trap in which they are self-destructing and handing governmental power to the Social Democrats for this term and for the next term, perhaps the next term.
GWEN IFILL: Jackson Janes do you agree that Wolfgang Schaeuble will have to resign?
JACKSON JANES: I think that's probably going to happen. And to some extent, as Joe indicated, there will be a lot more change at the top at the current levels of leadership for the party. Maybe in some ways in the long run that is a good thing if its going to happen because there is going to be room for people waiting in the wings at the lower level of the parties that have been around for a while and would like to perhaps be part of that renovation. A crisis can bring something healthy in the form of a renewal of a party, but I think this is going to take a while and have some pain before it takes effect.
GWEN IFILL: Helmut Kohl resigned his honorary chairmanship, but he did not give up his seat in the Bundestag. Do you think that have to happen as well?
JACKSON JANES: I don't know. I think it depends on what happens with the district attorneys that are investigating the charges, the allegations. And they are still allegations. Nothing has been really proven yet. But I think at this point it's probably premature to say that's going to happen.
GWEN IFILL: Josef Joffe, your thought on that?
JOSEF JOFFE: Well -- it depends when we're talking politics now -- it depends how grave and dangerous the route of the party is going to be. If this unraveling process continues, they're going to have to make a sacrifice, and that sacrifice will be Helmut Kohl which means that if the prosecutors so demand, they may well lift immunity and they will be talking about the greatest chancellor since Bismarck going into court in a criminal process, which will be quite a fall from grace in a way worse than Nixon's fall because Nixon, after all, had got a full pardon before he absconded to California and then to Saddle River.
GWEN IFILL: The penalty in this case is five years in prison. Do you think that's likely to happen for breach of public trust? Would it go that far?
JOSEF JOFFE: Well, since Kohl has no record, he'll probably get probation.
GWEN IFILL: Josef Joffe, tell me a little bit about your sense about how such a large figure, worldwide, as you just described, could now find himself on the brink of such a tawdry scandal; it seems in some parts because of arrogance.
JOSEF JOFFE: It's easy. Why did Nixon's first vice president get caught taking 10,000 bucks a throw when he was in the White House.
GWEN IFILL: Spiro Agnew
JOSEF JOFFE: That was Spiro Agnew. The answer is very easy. When you are in power, as Kohl has been, for 16 years, that's longer than FDR has been, longer than anybody in German history save for Prince Bismarck, and that was not a real democracy. You think you're invulnerable. You think you can get away with anything. And Kohl won against his enemies decapitated his rivals. He got reunification. He came back from oblivion to win his... to win the second election. The first election he had lost, and then he ruled and ruled and ruled. To me it makes perfect sense that you then might be tempted to think you're God and totally invulnerable, which as a side light by the way, shows the wisdom of the American constitutional amendment which limits the president to two terms.
GWEN IFILL: Jackson Janes, is this a case of Helmut Kohl's ego getting out of control, as Mr. Joffe tends to think?
JACKSON JANES: He's talking about the typical arrogance of power I think that sets in. Mayor Daley in Chicago used to run his city with an iron fist as well. I think there is a tendency on the part of politicians to feel invulnerable after a certain period of time. But let me go back to Joe's constant comparison with Nixon. I'm not sure the resignation of Nixon is the same as Kohl. Joe remember that after the whole affair in 1974-75, there was a renewal in the United States. A lot of changes went into the Senate and the Congress and there was a lot of efforts to fix the system that created the holes that the truth fell through. I think that's going to happen in Germany. In some ways I think this might just be a change that could be for the better. You have to hold on and see how long it's going to last before the storm is over.
GWEN IFILL: But what about the storm involving Helmut Kohl's eventual legacy. He accomplished something remarkable in the 20th century with the reunification of Germany. Is he permanently tarnished now?
JACKSON JANES: Again, I disagree with Joe. I think in the history books the man was able to accomplish something no one thought was possible six months before it happened. And I think that's going to remain on the books for a long time to come. This, however, will be a footnote, will be a paragraph, and will be part of his legacy, no doubt.
GWEN IFILL: Josef Joffe, what about the legacy of this for a democracy in Germany in general?
JOSEF JOFFE: Of course it's a good thing. It shows you a country which has had a real democracy for not even... Yeah, for half a century -- a country coming out of the worst totalitarian experience ever recorded by mankind, and it is a country where this kind of stuff does become known, where the judicial process does kick in, where the press is doing the right thing, where even a great power and a great legacy does not protect you from the wrath of the rule of law. And after all, democracy has to do not just with the regular elections, it has to do with the rule of law and that says that our rulers are not above, but beneath the law. And in that respect, it's another chapter in the evolution and the stable evolution of a democratic Germany 50 years after the greatest tyrant of them all.
GWEN IFILL: That will be the last word, Josef Joffe and Jackson Janes, thank you both very much.