Are great men also stupid?

Helmut Kohl's astonishing disgrace makes Anne Applebaum wonder if he was too busy hearing the hooves

I have no special fondness for Helmut Kohl, and I don't suppose that many people outside his intimate circle do either. On the few occasions I saw him in public, he positively radiated negative German stereotypes. He was large and jowly, with a fondness for the noodles and gravy and pork and cream cakes that are the legendary staples of his country's cuisine. He was never known for his refinement or high culture, his mastery of foreign languages or his subtlety of expression, and it showed. Listening to him speak, one could close one's eyes and imagine him as the mythical German tourist, dressed in loud swimming trunks and demanding the attention of the maItre d'hotel at a bad Italian resort.

Inside Germany, he was never quite the beloved figure that one might have expected either, given that he effectively ran the place for 16 years - from 1982 until a couple of years ago - and ran the Christian Democrats for even longer than that. German intellectuals always found him vaguely embarrassing; German journalists once nicknamed him "BlunderKohl".

A machine politician from a startlingly early age - he joined the CDU at 17, and clawed his way up the ladder of its Rhineland-Palatinate district associations - he stood squarely in the centre of German politics, which means well to the left of Tony Blair but freed of any of the German Social Democrats' romantic notions about communist countries.

Nevertheless, he is one of those political figures to whom fate gave, at a key historical moment, the chance to make a vital decision. There is a famous Bismarck quotation about a great man being the one who can hear the hooves of the horseman of history approaching in the distance, and who then manages to catch on to his horse's tail as he passes: it could have been written for Kohl. As practically no one now remembers, the reunification of Germany was very far from being inevitable. Francois Mitterrand was dubious about reunification. Margaret Thatcher was positively against it. Many in Germany, particularly on the left, were opposed to it, too: note the success of the Nobel Prize winner, Gunter Grass, who wrote a book denouncing reunified Germany. There were plenty of people, at home and abroad, who would have been happy never to see Greater Germany come to pass.

Helmut Kohl, though, heard the hooves of history, and shoved all of the opposition away. On the day the Wall fell (he happened to be in Warsaw - which also no one remembers), he rushed back to Berlin, and immediately began making a series of emotional, pro-unification speeches, following which he started negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev. He would not only reunite Germany, he would reunite Germany as quickly as possible. He would, in fact, buy East Germany from the Russians, for 80 million marks, the price of rehousing the 350,000 Soviet soldiers stationed there. (This sum, one of his then-advisers admitted to me recently, had in fact been plucked out of the air, and the West Germans believed it to be incredibly low.)

In the process mistakes were made - but the timing was right. Had Kohl waited, the story might have ended differently. Within months of reunification, the mood went sour in the Soviet Union. A coup was plotted against Gorbachev; power shifted. If unified Germany had not already become an established fact, it is conceivable that it might not have happened, or at any rate that it might not have happened while Germany remained a member of Nato.

For this one flash of vision - bolstered by the years of solid prosperity leading up to it - Helmut Kohl is now known in Germany as the Father of Unification, the symbol of the New Germany, the Grand Old Man of the CDU, and so on. His name towers over the history of 1980s and 1990s Germany, dominating everyone's political memory: Chancellor Schroder's worst political problem is that, beside Kohl, he looks a pygmy.

All of which is a long, very roundabout way of explaining why the current German political scandal, of which Kohl is the absolute centre, is so extraordinary, and so symptomatic of the state of modern political leadership. For, as the scandal has unfolded, each step predictably following another - Kohl first angrily denying any wrong-doing, then grudgingly admitting to minor infringements, then slowly dragging the rest of the party leadership down along with him - it has become clear that Kohl shares with Boris Yeltsin, and with Bill Clinton, a disturbing trait: all three are more than usually gifted with qualities of political vision, all three are more than usually scornful of the morality of ordinary people, and all three are more than usually stupid about ordinary people's ability to find this out.

Throughout his meteoric career in public service, Clinton repeatedly used his position, his aides and his bodyguards to conceal his dalliances with women, and was shocked and angry when anyone found out about it. Despite loudly refusing nomenklatura "privileges" in his years in the Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin, too, once he became president of Russia, happily oversaw a redistribution of wealth (we ought, really, to stop calling it a reform) that made his family and friends, and probably himself, extremely rich. Until his resignation, when he unexpectedly apologised, he, too, took offence at any suggestion of wrong-doing.

All three men were, or could have been, great, popular leaders. All three will go down in history as fraudsters, liars and terrible political liabilities to their own parties or supporters. It is no accident that Vladimir Putin's first action in office (after pardoning Yeltsin) was to sack the former president's daughter. Al Gore is running as much against the legacy of Bill Clinton as against the Republicans. The German Christian Democrats, who only a few months ago were poised to make a comeback, will be bogged down for months in corruption hearings.

One is staggered by the short-sightedness of it all. Couldn't these politicians, so finely tuned to the nuances of the public's desires, such geniuses at achieving impossible ends, have seen what was coming? Didn't Kohl realise that putting unregistered cash in secret Swiss bank accounts would eventually destroy his reputation? Didn't Clinton know that lies are found out? Didn't Yeltsin realise that allowing corruption to run riot would destroy the reforms he'd done so much to bring about?

They didn't expect it, and that is what is so odd. Perhaps real greatness goes hand in hand with real blindness about life's details. Perhaps political success brings with it the overwhelming conviction that everything one does is in the name of a good cause. Or perhaps the security cocoon enjoyed by international statesmen gives them the illusion that anything is possible. In the world of private aeroplanes, VIP lounges, personal bodyguards, minuted meetings, specially prepared news cuttings, breakfasts with businessmen and White House dinners, one suspects that uncomfortable facts are never mentioned, at least not until it is much too late.