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A First Lady's Ambitions: Inside A Simmering German Presidential Scandal

Christian Wulff entered the office of the German presidency last year with his glamorous second wife seen as a major new asset. But a rolling series of allegations of financial and ethical improprieties -- including a luxurious new house in her hometown -

Bettina and Christian Wulff (Wikipedia)
Bettina and Christian Wulff (Wikipedia)
Ulrich Exner

BERLIN - Bettina Wulff seemed to have it all. Newly annointed Germany's first lady, she was a fresh, young face, straight out of a picture book. She had made a quantum leap into the Bellevue presidential palace in Berlin, and along with two young children had brought some life into those staid old walls.

She certainly presented herself well at state receptions, on trips abroad, sometimes favoring a business look, sometimes a demure ladylike one --and sometimes the 38-year-old was downright glamorous. Sure there's backbiting about her clothes, even in Berlin of all places. But when she steps out of that official limo her smile radiates. This is a woman who's found her role.

Her husband, Christian Wulff, 52, has been serving since 2010 as Germany's president, an important if largely ceremonial position, with the government run by the Chancellor.

Wulff stepped into the presidential role looking dusted off, even fresh, with his new young family. He would lead the way. He might be quiet-spoken, low-key, but he was also perceived as steady. And he knew all about holding public office.

But then he stumbled. Once. Twice. In general, he seemed to be drifting, a little off message. And now the fairy tale risks heading for an unhappy ending.

From a legal standpoint, a woman named Edith Geerkens, as Wulff bravely continues to claim, is the one who gave him a loan to build his Hanover home. It was she who signed the contract. But de facto, it's her husband, German entrepreneur Egon Geerkens, Wulff's fatherly friend and supporter, who is more likely to have been helping out.

Any other scenario seems implausible. There's no two ways about it: until further notice, Christian Wulff is a president on call. If just one more mistake is revealed, the youngest person to hold the office of President of the Federal Republic of Germany may also turn out to be the shortest-serving. And his glamorous wife will hardly be spared.

You couldn't have dreamt of this whole mess back in June, 2010 when the couple from Großburgwedel just northeast of Hanover, still relatively newly in love, became president and first lady.

But if you visited Hanover back then and asked about them, what you picked up very quickly, though, was that Wulff's entourage was waiting for his next step almost with trepidation.

Beyond the uncertainty of the political future for the long-serving Prime Minister of the state of Lower Saxony, who some eyed as a successor to Angela Merkel, people were wondering about something else. In the State Chancellery, in the Parliament, in the Markthalle – the covered market with its eateries right next door to the parliament building, where everybody met up over lunch: how were things going with the brassy Bettina?

A changed man

People sensed danger for their usually cautious leader. After all, wasn't Bettina the one who had talked Air Berlin boss Joachim Hunold into giving her husband a free upgrade on that flight to Miami? Wasn't she the one who turned the rather modest Christian Wulff, who when he visited Expo 2000 in Hanover waited in line with everybody else, into a flashy VIP for whom no party was loud or colorful enough?

Wasn't she also the one creating some tensions between Wulff and loyal staffers, like Olaf Glaeseker, the president's savvy spokesman? Add to that all the stories out there about the president‘s wife's wild former life. Tales abounded about the parties she attended on the island of Sylt, playground of the German glitterati. Very few people were positively impressed by that in Lower Saxony's relatively conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Wulff's party.

The underlying message in all this was unmistakably clear. If the well-behaved and upright president were ever to be involved in a scandal, you could be sure to point the finger at the new Mrs. Wulff, with her need for flash and glamour and social validation.

But you also heard this in Hanover. Bettina was good for Christian Wulff. He was more relaxed, confident, self-assured -- no trace of the earlier, boring man who always looked a little lost at parties and official ceremonies of all kinds. The old Wulff was said to be saddened that his then wife, Christiane, had never been interested in his political life – they functioned in "different oceans' as Wulff himself once described it.

So it wasn't really surprising that in 2006, on a trip to South Africa, he jettisoned his private life overnight when he met Bettina Körner, an employee of a Hanover-based German tire company, Continental AG. Despite the cost of divorce and alimony, one wanted to have something to offer a new love. That fact very possibly led to decisions that under other conditions Wulff might not have made. Such as the flight in business class for which he only paid economy fare. No big deal, but Wulff knew the ropes of public office.

This is also where the decision to build a house – without any of his own capital to invest -- in Bettina Wulff‘s home community of Großburgwedel is most striking. Wulff knew that taking a private loan didn't fit in with expectations of a responsible authority figure -- and much less so if information about it was withheld at an official parliamentary enquiry.

Then, a few months later, when he was already occupying the office of president, there was a vacation in Mallorca at the villa of German entrepreneur Carsten Maschmeyer. And this is possibly where the most important decision in Christian Wulff's life comes into it.

It was not a little surprising, that the power-conscious Wulff decided, in early summer 2010, to give up a political role and go for the relatively low-power office of president of Germany. That meant he would not be Angela Merkel's successor (Schröder had gone on from Wulff's old job to become German Chancellor).

But there's something else. The president of the country earns at least twice as much as a state leader does.

On the night of the decision of whether or not to accept the presidency, Bettina Wulff accompanied her husband to Berlin where he was to meet with the Chancellor. She waited for him in a restaurant, and afterwards, presumably already on the way back to Hanover, she decided: they would move into the Bellevue presidential palace. Glamor, and other things, would not be in short supply.

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Migrant Lives

They Migrated From Chiapas When Opportunities Dried Up, Orchids Brought Them Home

An orchid rehabilitation project is turning a small Mexican community into a tourist magnet — and attracting far-flung locals back to their hometown.

They Migrated From Chiapas When Opportunities Dried Up, Orchids Brought Them Home

Marcos Aguilar Pérez takes care of orchids rescued from the rainforest in his backyard in Santa Rita Las Flores, Mapastepec, Chiapas, Mexico.

Adriana Alcázar González/GPJ Mexico
Adriana Alcázar González

MAPASTEPEC — Sweat cascades down Candelaria Salas Gómez’s forehead as she separates the bulbs of one of the orchids she and the other members of the Santa Rita Las Flores Community Ecotourism group have rescued from the rainforest. The group houses and protects over 1,000 orchids recovered from El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, after powerful storms.

“When the storms and heavy rains end, we climb to the vicinity of the mountains and collect the orchids that have fallen from the trees. We bring them to Santa Rita, care for them, and build their strength to reintegrate them into the reserve later,” says Salas Gómez, 32, as she attaches an orchid to a clay base to help it recover.

Like magnets, the orchids of Santa Rita have exerted a pull on those who have migrated from the area due to lack of opportunity. After years away from home, Salas Gómez was one of those who returned, attracted by the community venture to rescue these flowers and exhibit them as a tourist attraction, which provides residents with an adequate income.

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