AS the world prepares for German unity, Helmut Kohl suddenly dominates center stage. While Bonn's bulky chancellor might take up the limelight in any setting, it is now his political weight that attracts attention. Yet unlike others in the cast - Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel - Kohl draws few rave reviews. To many Americans he remains the jocular, but little-known spokesman for a close ally.
For years, Kohl's legion of domestic critics have scornfully dismissed him as a heavyweight lightweight, a mediocrity. Voters also find him unexciting; at election time he is more often a liability than an asset to his governing coalition. Even Kohl's supporters rarely wax enthusiastic.
Yet one reason for Kohl's success is the very fact that so many people underestimate him. He lacks an impressive resume. In 1982 he became chancellor with no prior experience as a Cabinet minister, the expected job credential in Europe. Nor in seven years has Kohl developed expertise on any issue. Instead he has spent a career mastering the internal machinery of a large, unwieldy party that - for now - commands the support of more Germans than its opponents.
The chancellor rarely presses his own agenda, but lets a majority emerge from the welter of conflicting interests in his quarrelsome coalition. At the outset of a policy debate, few know where Kohl stands; by the end, he can usually be found at the center of a broad consensus.
All the more surprising, then, that on the question of German unity, this pragmatic power broker has so boldly seized the moment.
When East Germany's communist system began collapsing last fall, Kohl surprised Europe with a 10-point plan for ending the nation's division. Now he seems to be everywhere - Dresden, Berlin, Paris, Moscow, Camp David - offering incentives and reassurances to speed up that process.
The chancellor's fast-paced diplomatic tourism annoys many who fear he is pressing the accelerator too hard. East German officials complain of being bypassed altogether, while Poles worry about Kohl's reluctance to recognize their western border. His own bankers nervously warn that a common Germany currency could spark massive inflation and higher interest rates.
What explains Kohl's sense of urgency?
Kohl is plainly no nationalist in the traditional sense. Too young for active military service in World War II, he grew up in a solidly democratic, prosperous West Germany firmly anchored in the West.
Indeed, no German leader has ever seemed so wedded to the status quo. Only two years ago removal of American missiles and soldiers struck him as risky first steps away from an alliance that to him both ensures German security and represents his country's conversion to the ``Western community of values.''
Yet precisely this pride in Germany's democratic credentials explains Kohl's present policy. For years he has voiced the view ``that our will for national unity and our will to have a free form of government are linked.'' Germany has overcome its Nazi past, he adds, and should not be denied the right of all nations peacefully to determine their own future.
Plainly, Kohl's other reason for fast action is political. Capitalizing on his new stature, he reminds Germans that by pushing patriotism and capitalism, his government has helped weaken communism across the border.
Critics deplore the rush to unify as a partisan ploy. The center-left Social Democrats are Kohl's strongest foes at home; this month their sister party will win East Germany's first free election. With a majority on both sides of a disappearing border, the Social Democrats are confident of a victory in the West German election this December, and of a triumph at the first all-German vote after reunification.
In a unified Germany, Kohl's Christian Democrats will have to expand beyond their Roman Catholic middle-class base to attract the largely Protestant workers in the East. Party peers may dump Kohl in favor of a more dynamic leader.
Yet betting on the imminent demise of this shrewd tactician is still a risk. Kohl has not lasted so long in politics by ignoring opportunities. He recently made his first campaign swing - through East Germany.