A phonograph record that is selling well in connection with the West German election has the voices of leading politicians spliced together in a bruising and amusing medley of traded insults and outbursts.
Like the media's billing for the election itself, the record is entitled, "The Fight of the Giants" -- a reference to the central contest between Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and opposition leader Franz Josef Strauss, widely regarded as the country's two most able and experienced politicians.
Interrputing the name-calling on the record, which closely resembles the general tone of the campaign, a voice comes on to quote an old African saying: "In the space where elephants fight, there will be no grass."
As the election approaches Sunday, West Germany's political ground apears thoroughly trampled by both the Social Democratic (SPD) and Christian Democratic (CDU) parties. Schmidt is clearly favored to win, but the campaign left the country largely barren of meaningful political discussion and avoided serious review of Bonn's future programs.
A European diplomat with long experience in West Germany tried to explain why the campaign went the way it did. "It shows that there is a basic consensus in this country to begin with," he said. "Also, Schmidt himself has done an unusually good job. It could not have been a campaign of issues. It had to end up a campaign of personalities. The fact that the challenger was Strauss, who is by nature provocative, who reinforces this."
Not that controversial issues were lacking. At home, attention centered on the acceleration of Bonn's national debt, on energy policy and, in the final week, on law and order in the aftermath of the bomb explosion at the Munich Oktoberfest that killed 13 people and injured 213.
Abroad, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the crisis in Poland, the postponement of a planned summit meeting between the leaders of East and West Germany -- all placed a question mark over the future of Bonn's relationship with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Additionally, recent Bonn-Washington frictions over the placement of nuclear missiles in Europe and the form of the Western response of Afghanistan left the Schmidt government open to attack.
But the distance between Germany's major political groupings on significant concerns is often more one of accent than substance. This was sharply underlined during last night's televised election debate when Strauss, repeatedly challenged to say precisely what different foreign policy he would construct for West Germany, ducked a direct answer.
For all the campaign talk of Schmidt leading the Federal Republic left down to the road to socialism, or that Strauss would lead it right to fascism, both parties have stayed within a few percentage points of each other in public opinion surveys.
In the runup to the campaign, both parties claim to have been committed to waging a clean right, arguing ideas instead of spewing invective. Both sides say now that the other fired the first shot.
The Christian Democrats cite for blame the state election last May in populous North Rhine-Westphalia, in which the Social Democrats suggested that a vote for the CDU was a vote for Strauss and war. Afterwards, Strauss declared he had no choice but to launch a verbal war on the Social Democrats.
With Schmidt at a peak of domestic and international popularity, his strategists say they had little to gain by sinking to personal attacks on the opposition. But under five from Strauss and not wanting to appear weak, they maintain their best choice was to go on the offensive.
Both parties ended up playing hard not only on each other but on the particular fears and insecurities of a nation deeply marked by war and economic ruin.
"I don't want to be misunderstood," the 65-year-old Strauss would say. "The Army is not going to march in the day after the election." But in swift Bavarian cadence, he would quickly turn to accuse Schmidt of "capitulation by installments" to the Soviet Union and give warning that step by step, West Germany would be "decoupled" from the United States.
Strauss has sought to portray Schmidt at the "chief clerk" to what he called the Social Democrats' "Moscow faction," which he said really has charge of Bonn's foreign policy and to which he attributed dark, anti-Western aims.
Unfortunately, the appearance of the burly, mercurial Strauss in action before a crowd, booming above the noises of ever-present hecklers, was not always helpful to his cause. His words chattered forth like machine-gun fire, his images became ever more colorful, his face beamed excitement at delivering his message, without notes, for over 90 minutes at a stretch. Through a marathon performance, the flight of his oratory laid him open to charges of his opponents that he would behave the same way as chancellor.
"This man cannot control himself; he must not have control over our country," Schmidt would declare. Picturing the Bavarian premier as one likely to make false foreign policy moves and damage the stability Schmidt himself had constructed, the chancellor warned that Strauss "would isolate Germany if he came to power."
Schmidt's own performance is a blend of skillful statesman and engaging politician. His speeches were crafted to include touches of local color fitted into the broad scope of a chancellor's concerns. He would often begin by talking of youth and foreign workers -- two groups whose problems are likely to become the main concerns of future Germany, though Schmidt had difficulty drawing much media or pubic interest in such matters. More central to the concerns of the moment were his defense of Bonn's national debt as an investment for the future and his oration on his intention to continue to pursue a balance of power between East and West in Europe.
Perhaps highest honors in the campaign belong to Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Bonn's foreign minister and chairman of the Free Democratic Party (FPD), the junior coalition partner to the Social Democrats.
Always seeming to skip precariously along the 5 percent vote minimum necessary to stay in power, the Free Democrats appeared in serious danger last spring when they failed to top this in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. But shocked by the notion of either the CDU or SPD ruling alone, the public seems to have rallied behind Gelscher enough to give his party a comfortable enough margin of several percentage points in pre-election surveys.
Genscher has presented himself as a crucial partner without whom Schmidt would have a difficult time. Stressing foreign and security policies, Genscher's message has been that continuation of the current Bonn coalition would be the best guarantee for peace. His slogan: "No experiments."
A clear casualty of the campaign is West Germany's recent-born national environmental party, known as the "Greens." Though scoring surprisingly large victories in state elections in the last 12 months in Bremen and Baden-Wuerttemberg the party appeared to wither in the heat of the national election. It is now expected to score around 2 percent of the vote.
Finally, the campaign silliness award would have to go to the arbitration panel, set up at the start of the race by the four major parties to serve as umpire for the race. Comprised of four elderly politicians from each of the parties and headed by a 73-year -old retired Protestant bishop, Hermann Kunst, the panel was long on moral authority but short on political pull. It was given no enforcement power for its rulings, nor a code of fair play. Its decisions were to be published in the party press, on the hope that such hand-slapping would be enough to maintain a sense of campaign decorum.
But it wasn't long before the panel itself got exposed to ridicule for what looked like a bit of curious decision making. While the opposition Christian Democrats received license to call Schmidt a pension swindler, for instance, Social Democratic Party chief Willy Brandt was forbidden from labeling Strauss "uncontrolled." The uproar over such rulings nearly caused the board to disband early last month.
Nevertheless, panel chairman Kunst, asked to comment last week on the job his group had done, concluded that its hit-and-miss efforts had been "partially worthwhile."