Listening to the worldwide tributes to the four-term chancellor who helped end the Cold War and then oversaw the reunification of East and West Germany, it is almost impossible to believe that Kohl (who was 87) as an up-and-coming politician was dismissed as a “boob,” “bumpkin,” and, as biographer Henrik Bering put it, “a bit of a speech-writer’s nightmare.”
“Even when he had a good speech, he could manage to mangle it,” wrote Bering, “Droning relentlessly through the text without paying the slightest attention to verbal flourishes, pauses, and other dramatic fineries….”
But historian and career politician Kohl overcame these flaws through his tenacity and an ability to get back on his feet after being knocked to the ground. At 6-foot-4 inches tall and weighing a publicly-acknowledged 320 pounds (his actual weight was “a state secret,” he joked), Kohl had incredible stamina and capacity for work.
“I’m as invincible as an ox,” he liked to say.
Kohl experienced his defeats. In 1971, he lost a bid to be chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and thus its candidate for chancellor the following year. The man who beat him (by a resounding vote of 344 to 174), Rainer Barzel, went on to lose to Social Democratic Party (SPD) Chancellor Willy Brandt.
Four years later, Kohl was the CDU candidate for chancellor. His opponent, SPD Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (left), a chain-smoking intellectual, frequently belittled the hulking country boy from rural Rhineland-Palatinate. Schmidt and his party won handily.
“This is the man who wants my job but he will not get it,” is how Schmidt introduced Kohl to visiting U.S. President Gerald R. Ford.
“Believe me, Helmut Kohl will never become chancellor,” proclaimed his arch-rival among conservatives, Bavarian Premier Franz Josef Strauss, after Kohl lost the 1976 election, “At the age of 90, he’ll write his memoirs, Forty Years as a Chancellor Candidate.”
Kohl, of course, did become chancellor. Following a dispute in September, 1982 between the ruling SPD and its junior partner in government (the libertarian Free Democrats) over economic policy, Schmidt lost a vote of confidence in the Bundestag (parliament) and resigned as chancellor. Enter Kohl, who as leader of the opposition CDU was then offered the opportunity to form a government. He won the support of the Free Democrats and became chancellor on October 1, 1982.
“Schmidt’s departure means the end of postwar stability in Europe,” predicted Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to Jimmy Carter.
Over the next sixteen years, Kohl would go on to prove Brzezinski and other naysayers wrong — quite wrong. The united Germany he helped to bring about is today the key player in the financial and political saga of Europe. At its helm are Chancellor Angela Merkel, a protégé and admirer of Kohl, and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who was Kohl’s top aide when he was chancellor.
If Kohl can be likened to any American politician, it is almost certainly another under-estimated figure from a modest background, who was also frequently mocked, but who also turned out to be a leader of consequence. Meeting with President Ronald Reagan, Kohl was delighted to learn they both agreed on who was the greatest president of the 20th century: Harry Truman.
Kohl was well aware of how enemies belittled and dismissed him. He once told Gen. Vernon Walters, former U.S. ambassador to West Germany: “My enemies have been underestimating me since I ran for the City Council in Mainz. And they still do it in the federal Chancellery. I hope they continue to do it.”
By John Rizzi
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