Beleaguered Kohl’s Path Gets Rougher

Times Staff Writer

To many West Germans and their allies, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has been a tower of Teutonic stability. Now, however, many of them describe him in considerably less flattering terms.

In recent weeks, Kohl’s image has shifted from that of a plodding but reliable ally to that of a panicky political opportunist, offending Bonn’s closest friends.

In the wake of a series of election setbacks and policy changes, Kohl’s standing in public opinion polls has plummeted, the parties of the government coalition are wrangling among themselves, and Kohl’s future as chancellor is said to be in doubt.


According to the magazine Stern, party stalwarts may dump Kohl before the general election scheduled for December, 1990.

“They had Kohl to thank for their seats, posts and sinecures,” Stern said, “and they knew the elephant in the chancellery would stamp on any critic. Now there is danger that the herd will crush its leader underfoot because it no longer trusts him to defend their rich feeding grounds.”

Many Reasons for Shift

There are a number of reasons for the drastic shift in Kohl’s image, but the main reason is one that goes to the heart of West Germany’s ties with its Western allies: the issue of short-range nuclear missiles based in Kohl’s country. Kohl’s position, that the allies should forgo modernizing the missiles and enter negotiations soon with the Soviet Union on that subject, is directly opposed to that of Washington, which is in favor of upgrading the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s arsenal of tactical nuclear missiles in Europe.

Kohl has never been a popular figure, but he has confounded critics with his ability to survive despite his stolid, wait-and-see leadership. Some observers say his strengths have been those of a canny, tenacious provincial politician--useful qualities but perhaps not suitable for the leader of a major European power.

Kohl has been compared to the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, the self-made Texan who combined a sure touch on the domestic scene with a faltering step abroad. Kohl, as Johnson was, is a big, heavy, shambling man, with a mastery of the back-room levers of his party, who can be vindictive when crossed.

Frequently Satirized

Also like the Johnson image, Kohl is a rumpled figure with a regional accent, no facility for foreign languages, and a down-home manner, all of which are satirized by the political cartoonists who are accustomed to worldly chancellors such as Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt.


Kohl has always been criticized for not providing vigorous international leadership, but this year he seems to have lost his touch on domestic policies, and this confused and alienated voters in recent local elections.

In trying to placate domestic opinion, Kohl reversed himself on the missile issue and as a consequence incurred the contempt and anger of Bush Administration officials and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Less than a month ago, Bush and Thatcher believed that in return for their delaying a decision on the sensitive issue of modernizing the missiles in West Germany, Bonn would not press for negotiations with the Kremlin on their reduction.

Caved in to Genscher

But 24 hours after this deal was struck in Brussels, Kohl caved in to the persistent demands of Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and called for “early” talks with the Soviets.

He also reversed himself on the length of service for West German conscripts. His government announced an increase from 15 to 18 months because of the declining birthrate. Then, to the dismay of defense officials, he said the extension would be put off. He cited “new figures” but refused to disclose them.

“These decisions,” a West German analyst said, “have infuriated Washington, London, the defense community and NATO allies, but they may play well at home.”


Angelika Volle, a senior West German policy analyst, said, “Germans want to get rid of nuclear missiles, and they don’t mind a chancellor standing up to the U.S. and British on this.”

Kohl has also reversed himself on health, welfare and tax reform questions--once he realized that they were unpopular.

These about-faces have led to a perception of Kohl as changing course in response to every political wind rather than providing firm guidance. Still, some see this as an ability to adjust to popular wishes.

And some of Kohl’s problems are not of his making. He presides over an unwieldy coalition of three parties--his center-right Christian Democratic Union, its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, which is more to the right, and the liberal Free Democrats, who stand to the left.

Kohl has allowed his foreign minister, Genscher, a leader of the Free Democrats, to take over the reins of foreign policy, to the consternation of Washington and London, to the extent that Genscher is known as “Bonn’s secret chancellor.” Genscher stands at the top in popularity polls.

For years, Kohl’s main antagonist was Franz Josef Strauss, leader of the Christian Social Union, who died last year. Ironically, Strauss’ right-wing image kept many ultraconservatives under the Christian Democratic tent, but they are now voting for far-right parties.


Seemed Improbably Cast

Because of his political shifts, Kohl may not be able to recover the centrist vote, political observers say, and he has lost the chance to be considered a true statesman. But Kohl always seemed improbably cast for the world stage.

Born in the industrial city of Ludwigshafen in the wine-growing Rhineland-Palatinate, he is the son of a Roman Catholic customs official and a Protestant mother. In high school, he became a youth member of the Christian Democratic Union, then studied at the University of Heidelberg, which awarded him a doctorate in history.

At 29, he was elected to the Rhineland-Palatinate state legislature. He married and fathered two sons and held a succession of political posts, in the process learning to manipulate the party machinery. He became the youngest man ever elected premier, or governor, of the state, then moved on to the federal level in Bonn.

In 1976, he was his party’s choice for chancellor but lost to Schmidt. In the next election, in 1980, Strauss shouldered Kohl aside to run at the top of the ticket--and lost. In 1982, the Free Democrats switched allegiance from the Social Democrats, bringing down the Schmidt government, and teamed up with the Christian Democrats. Kohl was named chancellor and won the office in his own right in 1983, then again in 1987.

He has weathered political crises: the Flick affair, involving charges that he had accepted funds from industries on behalf of his party; his dismissal of a senior general on unsupported morals charges, and his insistence that then-President Ronald Reagan accompany him to the Bitburg military cemetery, which contains the graves of several Nazi SS men.

Kohl scorns public relations advice and is confident that he can reach the German people directly with his folksy approach. But he is a stilted speaker and does not project well on television.


He is fond of pointing out that he is the first chancellor of the post-World War II generation. He speaks of knowing the “real” Germany, as distinguished from intellectual circles in Bonn, Hamburg and Berlin, and unabashedly praises the fatherland concept that appeals to much of the middle class.

He has tended to surround himself with men whom some regard as second-rate. His former official spokesman encouraged him to describe Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev as a better propagandist than the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels--a gaffe that froze Moscow-Bonn relations for nearly two years.

More recently, in part because of poor advice, Kohl mishandled the issue of a Libyan factory with the apparent potential of making chemical weapons. Kohl insisted that West German companies were not helping Libya build the factory long after it had been made clear that they were.

This year, after regional election setbacks in West Berlin and Hesse, Kohl appeared to panic. He quickly shuffled his Cabinet and reneged on his commitment to the NATO on the short-range missile issue.

Meanwhile, the opposition Social Democrats were bolstered at the polls and the radical Greens party decided to take part in state coalition governments, creating a real possibility that a “red-green” combination could take power after the next election.

Despite all this, few political analysts are writing off Kohl, who has proved the skeptics wrong before. As Volle, the policy analyst, put it, “Though his strengths are much shorter than his weaknesses, it is easy to underestimate him.”


For one thing, Kohl’s u-turn on nuclear missiles could prove to be a big political bonus. His position is supported by several NATO allies, and the first domestic impact may come sooner rather than later. On June 18, West Germans will choose their representatives to the European Parliament, as well as local officials in the Saarland and in Kohl’s own Rhineland-Palatinate.

Those results will be closely studied here and abroad to see whether the phoenix of West German politics can rise again.