Just Don't Call Him 'Mr. Merkel'

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Sean Gallup / Getty

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband Joachim Sauer

There'll be an unfamiliar face at Angela Merkel's side when the German Chancellor travels to President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, on Friday — Germany's "first gentleman," Joachim Sauer. Unlike other head-of-state spouses in Germany and elsewhere, Sauer is rarely seen at his wife's side as she carries out her duties as the world's most powerful woman.

A quantum chemist and full professor at Berlin's Humboldt University, he is said to resent being called Herr Merkel, even in jest. German tabloids have dubbed him the "Phantom of the Opera" because of his tendency to show up only at the Bayreuth opera festival, while preferring to avoid muddying his boots at the annual pig farmers' convention in Schleswig-Holstein. But Sauer clearly has a soft spot for some events on his wife's schedule — in particular, those that involve rubbing shoulders with the Bushes, according to Merkel biographer Gerd Langguth. His natural reserve notwithstanding, the scientist has made a point of greeting the U.S. First Couple during their earlier visits to Europe. And his views of the U.S. are said to have influenced his wife's as well.

Although previous first spouses such as Doris Schroeder-Kopf , wife of Gerhard Schroeder, kept an office in the Chancellery so as to be available for public functions, Merkel and Sauer have worked out an arrangement in which "whenever he can make time, he will be with her," explains Alexander Freiherr von Fircks, former protocol adviser for the German Government. He says Sauer's reluctance to appear at public functions in Germany is not about gender or "ill will" — "Professor Sauer has a 14-hour workday; he just has a very tight schedule." Nor, however, adds Langguth, "does he want to carry her handbag."

But visits to the ranch in Crawford are clearly in another category for Sauer, who apparently has plenty of time for the U.S. When the Berlin Wall came down, allowing him finally to travel freely, one of Sauer's first destinations was California, where he briefly took a job at a San Diego software company; Merkel visited him there before they were married. Merkel's "very positive image of America," says Langguth, dates from that period. During her first trip, "she gushed about the land of opportunity," says Langguth.

Berlin's ties with Washington have improved markedly since Merkel replaced Schroeder at the Chancellery, in part because of Merkel and Sauer's personal enthusiasm for the U.S. While some Germans winced at photographs of George W. Bush giving Merkel a neck rub during the G8 meeting in St. Petersburg in 2006, German papers dubbed the gesture a "love attack" — a demonstration of Bush's reciprocal affection for the German Chancellor.

But the transatlantic love-fest will be put to the test in Crawford, where Merkel, known in Germany as the Queen of the Backroom for her softly-softly negotiating style, is expected to warn Bush about the "catastrophic" consequences of a military strike on Iran. Bush, for his part, will urge the European leader to pursue tougher economic sanctions against Tehran, regardless of whether the U.N. Security Council follows suit. Germany has significant trade ties with Iran and has until now resisted pressure to ratchet up sanctions outside of the U.N. framework.

Whatever happens during the talks , Germany's first couple is unlikely to generate the kind of media voltage produced by their Gallic counterparts, Nicolas and Cecilia Sarkozy, in New England over the summer. Madame Sarkozy, then on the verge of leaving her husband, turned down an invitation to a barbecue with the Bushes in Kennebunkport, Maine, claiming she was ill. Frau Merkel and Herr Sauer, by contrast, enjoy a more settled partnership, which is unlikely to offer the sort of fodder for speculation that the Sarkozys did. In marriage, as in transatlantic politics, the less news the better.

With reporting by Stephanie Kirchner