Merkel came to Washington this week for her final tour as chancellor. She came for friendly greetings, multiple meals, an honorary degree and a round of applause for her leadership. And, of course, she came to leave a trail of new pictures that will serve as signposts for her enduring cultural legacy.
Already, her album is full. In the past, she has smiled with gratitude when President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His was the administration caught eavesdropping on her phone calls; his was the charisma — and liberal internationalism — that “Saturday Night Live” ribbed her about being unable to resist.
Merkel’s arms rose up in surprise when President George W. Bush stopped mid-stride to give her a touchy-feely shoulder massage during an international summit. It was that gesture that launched numerous conversations about gender, power, foolishness and sexual harassment.
She delighted in giving Secretary of State Hillary Clinton framed photographic evidence of their shared affection for pantsuits. These two female leaders, in their no-nonsense uniforms, stood side-by-side in 2011 as they admired the picture, which showed the two of them from the torso down, similarly dressed. They laughed at the image — and at the inconvenience of fashion, gender stereotypes and preconceived notions of what power is often presumed to look like.
In a snapshot taken during the 2018 Group of Seven meeting in Quebec, Canada, Merkel was seen leaning over a table, her hands firmly planted on its surface, looking intently at President Donald Trump, who sat with his arms folded and who was not quite looking her in the eyes. Merkel is the only woman clearly visible in the foreground of the frame, but she also stands out because of her cornflower blue jacket in a field of navy and charcoal gray. She immediately draws the eye. The photograph reads like a case study in emotional intelligence. She is the lead character; Trump is the motivating factor.
Everyone, except the two of them, looks rather put out. Trump looks vaguely amused. Merkel simply looks done. It was geopolitical exasperation made human.
But Merkel, who will not seek reelection, is not quite finished putting her stamp on the culture. Her Washington farewell rounds began with breakfast Thursday morning with Vice President Harris, the first time Merkel has been hosted at the vice president’s official residence at the Naval Observatory. Merkel arrived in her black SUV dressed in dark trousers and a yellow blazer. Harris was standing outside and waiting to greet her, wearing her own version of the Merkel uniform. Harris, too, has laid claim to the sisterhood of the pantsuit, which will someday be as standard, as omnipresent in positions of power, as the brotherhood of the business suit.
The two women, standing at an arm’s distance from each other and bookended by the flags of their respective countries, made a few remarks to the assembled media.
Harris was “very honored to see you, and I look forward to our conversation. And it goes without saying that the relationship between our two countries is one founded on many shared values, including a commitment to democracy around the world.”
For her part, Merkel was “delighted, too, for this opportunity here to meet the first madam vice president of the United States of America,” she said through an interpreter.
The few public minutes were formal and scripted, but the nature of the vice president’s residence, with its porch and modest entryway, makes it look more like a home than a museum. More open than sealed off. More convivial than intimidating. And against that backdrop, instead of a flexing of American might or a tidal wave of pomp, the world saw two stateswomen heading to breakfast.
It was the vice president’s house, but Merkel took the lead. It was a moment when the longtime German chancellor exemplified the reality that America has not yet fully grasped: Female leadership is ultimately just leadership.
Later in the day, Merkel made her way to the White House. She sat with President Biden in the Oval Office, each in an armchair in front of a grand fireplace. They exchanged the usual pleasantries and promised to take questions later — before dining together with a group of guests that included Clinton.
It was not a particularly striking scene but rather one that was familiar. The president wore a dark suit with a U.S. flag pinned to his lapel. He sat with his legs crossed. Merkel leaned in to his remarks.
“I would like to say here how much I value friendship with the United States of America,” Merkel said. “I am very much looking forward to deepening our relations yet again.” Later, during the leaders’ joint news conference, she spoke of cooperation on climate change, Afghanistan and trade. She declared Germany and the United States “close partners” and the day’s discussions “friendly.” Biden, too, spoke of friendship.
This is what world leaders do when they visit the White House. This is the tone when allies gather — at least before they’ve started to get into the weeds over one untenable problem or another. No one looked put upon. No one looked done. Merkel’s familiar presence will no longer be the face of Germany. She will soon be finished. But this wasn’t the end.