There's been nothing quite like him since, well, since Ludwig II, Maximilian I, and Albert V, who held their receptions in the glittering Rococo ballrooms of Bavaria during the 16th-century Counter-Reformation. The comparison with monarchs is not unwelcome to Franz Josef Strauss, premier of Bavaria, the only politician left who has been prominent since the postwar founding of West Germany.
He wears many hats: self-made millionaire; ex-minister of atomic science, defense, and finance; failed candidate for the chancellorship; bogeyman of the left; sharp-tongued scourge of his own conservative allies as well as of his ideological adversaries; and -- at 70 years old -- an only slightly-tamed enfant terrible.
The birthday festivities are going for 10 days (Sept. 5 to 14) -- a personal festival without precedent in democratic Germany.
Most of the celebrations are taking place in the Free State of Bavaria, which last elected Strauss with an overwhelming 62 percent. Strauss did, however, take his movable feast for one day to the West German capital that scorned him and selected Helmut Kohl as chancellor, a far-less-qualified conservative, in Strauss's opinion.
Dr. Kohl himself joined the birthday party on its first day -- in the seven-hour reception line at the Prince Carl Palace in Munich, where all the homage began.
President Richard von Weizs"acker was in Munich, too, and would have led off the congratulations, had not Lebanese President Amin Gemayel needed to present his silver tray first, in order to get on with other political discussions in West Germany. Ex-Presidents Karl Carstens and Walter Scheel were on hand as well, the former to present praise for Strauss from the likes of President Reagan, Henry Kissinger, ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and Strauss's elder sister.
East German leader Erich Honecker sent his best wishes. The Italian and Israeli ambassadors presented theirs in person. Half of Munich turned out for another reception at Strauss's residence. An Army band serenaded the democratic potentate. More than 3,000 Bavarian musicians paid their respects en masse. Some 300 mountaineers from the various Alpine hunting clubs in Bavaria and South Tyrol fired a salute with their carbines. Bavarian television put on a gala evening performance (featuring music by Richar d Strauss, of course) that was broadcast even in Bonn.
The Bayern Kurier, his party's newspaper, devoted 70 pages to pictures and reportage about every stage of Strauss's development, from precocious altar boy who insisted on knowing what the Latin mass meant to star pupil at the renowned Maximilianeum School to almost-chancellor.
Over the years Strauss has mellowed somewhat. Or at least this pragmatic German politician has executed policies that have blurred the left's image of him as a right-wing fanatic.
He never was a Nazi activist in Hitler times (however often he may have been so portrayed by the left). But he is a man who thinks that power is there to be used. He amply demonstrated this as defense minister in the early 1960s, when he had an editor of the German magazine Der Spiegel arrested in Francisco Franco's Spain at the time of the 1962 ``Spiegel Affair.'' He then denied his personal involvement and finally had to resign because of his false denial.
That scandal blocked Strauss's mercurial ascent toward the chancellory. Although he displayed extraordinary competence at whatever he turned his hand to -- establishing the fledgling West German Army, industrializing a largely agrarian Bavaria, championing technology long before it became a fad -- he would not be nominated as head of the federal government until 1980. But by then he had triggered the mistrust of so many north Germans that he lost by a landslide.
Kohl won that position in 1982. And Strauss might continue to boast that he ``didn't care what chancellor served under him,'' but Kohl would remain in the driver's seat in Bonn. Strauss would have to issue his Olympian pronouncements on the government's mistakes from ``the secret capital'' of Munich and conduct his grand tours of China, Gabon, Grenada, and East Germany from the lower office of Bavarian premier.
For most politicians this would have been a devastating defeat. For Strauss it only confirmed the poor judgment of north Germans and the good sense of his fellow Bavarians, who relish Strauss's polemical style. With no loss of flair he went on to confound his own right-wing admirers in 1983 by brokering a 1 billion mark loan (from Bavarian banks, of course) to East Germany.
And where does all this leave the birthday assessments in Germany of Bavaria's unchallenged ruler?
For one of his old adversaries, August Haussleiter, a former member of Strauss's conservative Bavarian party and now a member of the countercultural Greens party, Strauss is a ``strange mixture'' of deep cultural pessimism, conviction that he himself is the only man who could save the day, and vacillation when it's actually time to act.
In Mr. Haussleiter's view, these qualities ``let Franz Josef Strauss become the nightmare of the [German] Federal Republic.''
Admirer Adelbert Weinstein, a commentator on military affairs, renders a surprisingly similar judgment in calling Strauss ``Cassandra and Hercules combined.'' In the newspaper Welt am Sonntag, Mr. Weinstein writes that he is ``a type of politician whose talent allows little room for an objective judgment of his qualities. One is either for him, or his enemy. . . . One of his oldest press opponents these days admiringly maintains: `If Strauss had not been on the Bonn scene, somebody would have had to inv ent him.' ''