'Burger King' Kohl proves them all wrong

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He was viewed as an intellectual minnow, a provincial oaf. Franz- Josef Strauss, the towering monument to right-wing virtues, predicted confidently: "Herr Kohl will never become Chancellor. He has no ability." Even Mr Kohl's father warned that young Helmut would not be able to hack it in big-time Bonn.

This week Helmut Kohlbecomes the longest-serving German chancellor of the century, eclipsing the record set by the founder of post-war democracy, Konrad Adenauer. His 14 years at the helm are being marked by an exhibition of photographs, rare chat-show appearances and a volume trumpeting his greatest achievement: German unification.

Strauss is long dead. Other detractors have been silenced and rivals in his own party shunted into dead-end jobs. Mr Kohl, 66, has shafted one Social Democrat chancellor - Helmut Schmidt - and defeated four opposition leaders in elections. He outwitted Margaret Thatcher, out-manoeuvred Francois Mitterrand and had Mikhail Gorbachev eating out of his hand. He likes to boast that only Washington has more high-powered visitors than his small town on the Rhine.

The secret of his success remains elusive. Apparent failings turn out to be assets. His clumsy teddy-bear appearance elicits gentle affection, the absence of rhetorical flourish in his rambling speeches places him among common men. His philosophy is home-spun, the message a simple one: "Stick with me and you'll be all right." Voters seem to take him at his word, following him through the vicissitudes of life, from the trauma of reunification to the sacrificial slaughter of the Deutschmark on the altar of European unity.

He is the citizens' sovereign, the "Burger King", reigning over a system dubbed "Kohlocracy". The Chancellor is the final arbiter of policy; aides are left to grapple with the details. All important decisions are taken in the Chancellery, bypassing the cabinet made up of representatives of the three-party coalition. Thus, Klaus Kinkel, the Foreign Minister who belongs to the Free Democrats, is merely the executor of Mr Kohl's foreign policy. Day-to-day trouble-shooting on the domestic front is in the capable hands of Wolfgang Schauble, the Christian Democrats' chief parliamentary whip.

If there is a secret to Mr Kohl's success, it lies in his breast pocket: a notebook containing a long list of telephone numbers, meticulously jotted down over the years and ready to be activated at the slightest hint of trouble. The Chancellor calls his friends and allies, great or small, personally. It pays.

The last attempt at a palace coup was in 1989. There is nobody lurking in the bushes any more. If Mr Kohl stands in the 1998 elections and wins, the greatest record will be in sight: the 19-year reign of Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor to forge German unity. He, it should be noted, did not have to face the electorate.