Protesters made their feelings known in Mainz Wednesday as President Bush's itinerary avoided contact with everyday Germans. A meeting with the public was canceled for fear the audience would be hostile. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
MAINZ, GERMANY -- President Bush of course is not the first president named Bush to come to this town on the Rhine, but the very physical circumstances of this president's stopover here on Wednesday suggest how different, how less automatically warm, German-American relations are now than they were when his father stopped in Mainz 16 years ago.
Most conspicuous was the lack of contact between ordinary Germans and an American president visiting what could almost have been a stage setting: a town with buildings but no people, the shops and restaurants in the center of town closed, and only uniformed police officers on the streets.
Compare that with the main event of the first President Bush's trip here in 1989: a speech to an enthusiastic audience of 3,500 people gathered in a flag-draped hall, thrilling to Mr. Bush's declaration that Germany and America are more than "firm allies and friends," they are "partners in leadership."
After the speech, Mr. Bush and Chancellor Helmut Kohl - two men united in the great cause of winning, or at least surviving, the cold war - took a boat trip on the river, enjoying each other's company.
Of course, in the security-minded post-9/11 world, a visiting American president cannot just stand exposed before throngs of German citizens, as John F. Kennedy did in 1963 when he made his famous "I am a Berliner" speech, or as Ronald Reagan did in 1987 when he declared "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
But this president was entirely sealed off from Germans - other than Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the German journalists at a news conference, and even a town-meeting-type encounter with Mainz residents was scrubbed out of worry the mood would be hostile. A meeting with a group of carefully screened "young leaders" was put in its place.
Still, Mr. Bush's seven-hour stopover was very successful, according to German and American officials focused on repairing German-American relations damaged by disagreements over the war in Iraq. But the isolation of Mr. Bush from everyday Germans seemed a metaphor for how far apart Germans and Americans have drifted.
"I think it was not only fine, but excellent," Karsten Voigt, a senior German Foreign Ministry official, said after Mr. Bush met with Mr. Schröder. "Both sides obviously want to symbolize, by language, by rhetoric and by body language that German-American relations are good. When politicians do that, it's more than symbolic, it's also substance, because it gives a signal to public opinion that this is the way they want it to be in the future."
"I'm not saying that all the differences have been solved," he said. "But the dialogue is no longer about whether a policy is right or wrong; it is now about developing the right strategy to deal with problems."
But what of the eerie absence of the population of Mainz, and the cancellation of the town meeting? Mr. Voigt said that, aside from restrictions imposed for security reasons, the invisibility of ordinary Germans illustrated the skepticism felt by a majority of Germans toward Mr. Bush.
"It's simply a fact that the German government is moving in this direction," Mr. Voigt said, meaning toward warmer ties with the United States, "but that the German population is skeptical."
To be sure, one purpose of Mr. Bush's visit was to erase the memories of those days two years ago when Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld called Europe "irrelevant," and Mr. Bush and Mr. Schröder were essentially not speaking.
Mr. Bush might have succeeded in his fence-mending; certainly in calling Mr. Schröder by his first name at their joint news conference and thanking Germany, France and Britain for "taking the lead" on Iran - an initiative toward which the Bush White House had been openly suspicious - Mr. Bush altered the oratory and perhaps the mood.
It may in this sense be unfair to compare Mainz 2005 with other, showier American presidential visits to Germany, from Kennedy's in 1963 to Bill Clinton's stroll through the Brandenburg Gate, marking the withdrawal of American troops from a reunified Berlin. Those were times when Germany lay exactly across history's main fault line, and, quite simply, it does not any more.
But the dispute over the Iraq war awoke German citizens to something new in their relationship with the United States, an unease over the price that they might have to pay to be members of an alliance led by a figure whose instincts they distrust.
"Most Germans are still emotionally averse to what Bush stands for - going it alone, not paying attention to due process, which we love in Europe," said Eberhard Sandschneider, the director of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
The Germans remain anxious that their country will yet be drawn into a foreign military venture by a president who, as Mr. Bush has affirmed several times so far on his European tour, keeps all options, including military action, on the table.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company