In the two weeks before his 95th birthday on Monday, he was in Moscow seeing old Soviet friends and was invited to a chat at the Kremlin with President Vladimir V. Putin. He used his pulpit at Die Zeit to pen an appeal for curbing German exports of small arms. An hourlong conversation in his sixth-floor office proved as bracing as the sea winds that buffet his hometown, this ancient Hanseatic port of Hamburg.
In his supposed dotage in this country of rules, Mr. Schmidt enjoys a rare impunity. A heavy smoker, he does as no other mortal may: puff away anywhere, on television, at meetings, even, according to German journalists who have witnessed it, in Washington. When the European Union threatened earlier this year to ban menthol cigarettes, Mr. Schmidt’s friend Peer Steinbrück reported that the old chancellor had stockpiled 200 cartons of his favored Reynos — enough to feed his two-to three-pack-a-day habit for two or three years.
Aside from a low wheeze that growls at times through his throat, Mr. Schmidt seems to have thrived on his nicotine intake (augmented, always, by snuff). A greater impediment, he explains with something of a glint in his gray-blue eyes, is deafness: he wears a hearing aid and conversation must be seated at his desk so his brain and eyes can knit together the audiovisual strands, he says.
But intellectual inexactitude clearly bothers him more. “And your question is?” he asks tartly after a muddled inquiry. His vocabulary, redolent of the now distant era in which he was reared, is meticulous. In his first political decades, he was known as “Schmidt the Lip” for his unsparing tongue.
Mr. Schmidt is respected today by many in Germany for his toughness on security issues during the days of Soviet domination of East Germany. He was the driving force behind the NATO decision to answer the deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles with the installation of American Pershing missiles in Western Europe, but only if the Soviets refused to withdraw their new weapons. It was the major European security issue in the late 1970s and ‘80s and was deeply divisive at the time, contributing to Mr. Schmidt’s losing his position in 1982 because leftist Social Democrats opposed his stance.
Helmut Kohl succeeded him as chancellor and benefited from his resolution, rather in the way that Angela Merkel has benefited from the welfare reforms introduced by her Social Democratic predecessor, Gerhard Schröder.
Mr. Schmidt was also renowned for having stood up to the terrorists of the Red Army Faction in the 1970s, as well as for founding what today has become the Group of 8, originally small gatherings of world leaders that allowed confidential discussions of political and economic policy.
Despite his stature, he disputed that Germany has a penchant for revering its old men, pointing out that Italy’s current president, Giorgio Napolitano, is in his late 80s. And there are old women, too, he stressed, before wandering into a discourse about the emergence of female talent in, particularly, the fine arts in recent years.
Never mind that the current edition of the weekly Der Spiegel, in an article that coyly admitted to indulging old politicians, postulated that the particular value of these Germans in their 80s or 90s is that they all clearly rejected the Nazis.