ROSTOCK, Germany—The huge headline in Wednesday's edition of the German national newspaper Bild blared the question that inquiring minds in Germany wanted to know: "What Does Bush Find So Fascinating About His Girlfriend Angela?"
President Bush, who arrived Wednesday evening in this Baltic Sea coastal region of what once was communist East Germany, has formed a fast friendship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that has made them the new odd couple of international politics.
He's the architect of the pre-emptive-strike war on Iraq and defender of the U.S.-operated prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She leads West Europe's biggest nation, one that staunchly opposes the war, and she emphatically wants the Guantanamo prison closed.
But those big differences don't seem to be a problem between the two leaders personally.
"There's a personal chemistry that works for them," said Helga Welsh, an associate political science professor at North Carolina State University who specializes in U.S.-Europe relations. "Merkel can bring up unpopular topics like Guantanamo Bay and not get mad."
While other European leaders, such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, are in the twilight of their political careers, Merkel is on the rise. She has forged a leading role in Europe's efforts to prevent Iran from resuming its nuclear program. Next year, she will head the G-8—composed of leaders of eight major industrialized democracies—while holding the rotating European Union presidency for six months.
Merkel has been in office only eight months, but she's becoming the White House's go-to ally in Europe, experts in transatlantic relations say. She's already made the frosty relationship that Bush had with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder a distant memory.
"Tony Blair's position is waning by the day, by the hour," said Jackson Janes, the executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington. "Who can Bush look to for help in his remaining time in office? There's nobody in a better position than Angela Merkel."
Merkel is looking to deepen her friendship with Bush by showing him around her native province with the German version of the down-home hospitality that he extends to foreign leaders when they visit his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
"The president sees this visit as a gesture on her part to get into something he's interested in: her biography," Janes said.
Merkel is Germany's first female chancellor and the first East German to lead the country since the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall led to the reunification of East and West Germany.
She was born in Hamburg in 1954. Her family moved to a town about 50 miles north of Berlin in the communist German Democratic Republic when her father, a Lutheran minister, got a church there.
As a child, Merkel yearned for life on the other side of the Berlin Wall. She would hide in the school lavatory and listen on the radio to political speeches by West German leaders.
Since her election, Bush has held up Merkel as Exhibit A for why he's made advancing democracy and spreading liberty around the world a top priority for his administration.
"I find the chancellor to be a fascinating person who brings a unique perspective," Bush said during a White House news conference with Merkel in May. "A lot of us who grew up in the West take our liberties for granted. . . ."
Merkel is determined to give Bush, usually a reluctant tourist, the full flavor of East German culture. The president will receive a ceremonial barrel of herring after Merkel introduces him Thursday morning at the Old Market Square in Stralsund, the area's largest city and a shipbuilding center since medieval times.
After a working lunch, the two leaders will hold a news conference, then head to St. Nicholas church, a local landmark. That night, the president and first lady Laura Bush will feast on wild boar, venison and duck with Merkel in a restaurant in Trinwillershagen, a rural town of 1,380 that served as a model agricultural cooperative during communist rule.
Bush will visit some of Merkel's constituents while dining on local barbeque at the restaurant. He'll depart Friday for St. Petersburg, Russia, where he'll spend the day with President Vladimir Putin before the weekend G-8 summit begins.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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