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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kohl Marks Record Tenure as Chancellor

BONN -- With no pomp but plenty of publicity, Helmut Kohl sets a new record on Thursday when -- after 14 years and one month -- he overtakes Konrad Adenauer to become Germany's longest-serving post-war chancellor.

Kohl, 66, has publicly played down the record so much that he will not even be in Germany for what his aides call "K-Day." The tireless chancellor is now on an official tour of Asia.

"I don't get up every morning and count the days like an army recruit," he laughed recently when asked about his record. "That's absurd -- I love life too much to do that."

But a publicity drive with his active support has showered Germans with books, television shows and newspaper articles about the man Der Spiegel -- a magazine so critical he refuses to read it -- now reverently calls "The Eternal Chancellor."

In the media, a relaxed Kohl chats about his youth, his mentor Adenauer, about his success in reuniting Germany in 1990 and his dream of integrating Europe.

Two topics are studiously avoided -- the 5,145-day record itself and the next milestone, the 19-year record that "Iron Chancellor" Otto von Bismarck set in the 19th century.

For being in charge so long has clear drawbacks. All the problems he faces -- 10 percent unemployment, high labor costs, a bloated welfare state -- developed on his watch.

These may be a drag on his popularity ratings now, but Kohl is a master campaigner who likes elections so much he says he should be charged entertainment tax when he's out on the stump.

"The amazing thing about Kohl's career is not that he has set a record for sitting on the seat of power, but that he managed to win four general elections," wrote Jens Reich, one of eastern Germany's leading civil rights activists.

"For me, Helmut Kohl is not a mystical phenomenon but a first-class professional in dealing with political power."

The tall and bulky chancellor, once known as "The Pear" because of his imposing girth, was not always the master of politics and publicity he has become.

He understood the power game within the Christian Democrats well enough to become party chairman in 1973, when he was only 43 years old, and its candidate against Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 1976. Kohl grabbed the top job from Schmidt in 1982, when he got the small Free Democratic Party to ditch the Social Democrats and form a parliamentary majority with his party.

Since then, the pragmatic chancellor has defeated four SPD challengers and looks eager to take on the fifth in 1998.

Kohl's term in office splits into two periods -- before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989.

The Wall's collapse brought out the statesman in Kohl, who seized the chance and reunited Germany in less than a year. Just as importantly, he did it peacefully, with the agreement of Germany's one-time enemies and support among voters at home.

From 1982 to 1989, he often seemed very much the provincial politician bumbling from one faux pas to the next. He provoked howls of protest in 1985 by taking U.S. President Ronald Reagan to a cemetery where Waffen-SS soldiers were buried.

The next year, he drew a clumsy comparison between Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev -- the man who later effectively handed him East Germany.

"Kohl the clever power politician knew not only how to convince the world that West Germany was no longer a threat," essayist Cora Stephan once wrote. "He also taught the West Germans that politics was a pragmatic business with no need for flag-waving and lofty rhetoric."

Kohl's domestic record after unity in 1990 is mixed. He himself now admits that rebuilding the ex-communist east has taken longer and cost far more than he imagined in 1990.

But his statesman role has lived on, especially in the European Union he fervently wants to push towards closer integration. "German unification and European unity are two sides of the same coin," is one of his favorite sayings.