London — The South African official tried to sound nonchalant as he asked the question: ``By the way, what is a wump?'' ``Wump'' was, in this case, the Afrikaans-accented pronunciation of the word ``wimp.'' The word ``wimp'' had just dominated a Newsweek cover story on George Bush. And the South African's question - coming at a time last year when Pretoria was intent on appearing indifferent toward American politics - demonstrated how inescapably important the United States presidential elections are for the outside World.
But to judge by a sampling of foreign newspaper and television coverage, many people outside the US are having trouble getting a fix on this year's campaign.
Newspapers like Le Monde in Paris, for instance, and magazines like Britain's Economist seem satisfied to do little beyond parroting the US media's portrayal of a race between the cautious technocrat and the bumbling ``wump.''
Further south, the Spanish daily El Pais did highlight Bush's briefly controversial mention of his ``little brown'' grandchildren - calling the vice-president a natural ``political dyslexic,'' suggesting his remarks might lose him Hispanic votes, and noting favorably that Dukakis speaks Spanish. But otherwise, here and in the Portuguese Diario de Noticias, the convention provided sufficiently tame copy to be easily swept to the back pages.
The most interesting coverage - or lack thereof - came from the very north and very south of the globe: the Soviet Union and South Africa.
The Soviets seem torn. On the one hand - as one Moscow foreign policy analyst quipped during a conversation earlier this summer - there is a temptation to view Dukakis's ``Massachusetts miracle'' as ``a kind of American perestroika.'' The official said that he felt a President Dukakis might be well suited ``to joining us in the search for a whole new, post-cold war approach to international relations.''
Dukakis's softer public line on some military issues, such as Star Wars technology, also appeals to Moscow. The government news agency Tass, for instance, noted that Dan Quayle ``is an ardent conservative who advocates a tough approach to the Soviet Union.''
Still, the Soviets know that they may yet have to deal with Bush and Quayle as incumbents, not candidates. They know, moreover, that it has been under ``ardent conservatives'' like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan that the major nuclear arms treaties have been ratified.
All this may help explain the ginger treatment that the official media - such as this past week's Soviet nightly TV news - has given the controversy surrounding Quayle's National Guard service.
South Africa's government, by contrast, will have no trouble deciding which US presidential candidate it prefers. Dukakis wants mandatory economic sanctions against Pretoria. The Republicans don't. The problem for Pretoria has been what, if anything, it might do to help Bush and Quayle win.
President P.W. Botha's instinct, to judge by a statement issued by his office in reply to this month's US congressional vote for new sanctions, is to flex political muscle. Specifically, his statement hinted that if new sanctions become the law of the American land, South Africa might reconsider its part in a recent peace pact that could lead to an early withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola.
The treaty, noted a columnist in the Johannesburg Star a few days ago, is a potential campaign weapon in the hands of a Republican duo intent on proving that its brand of foreign policy toughness can best deal with the Soviets and their allies.
But only days later, liberal Afrikaner businessman Johann Rupert told a local Chamber of Commerce meeting that South Africa's best course during the campaign would be to avoid any political move that might risk embarrassing the Reagan White House. This, he suggested, would allow Dukakis to tar the Republicans with Pretoria's brush; help get Dukakis elected; and lead to new sanctions.