When John Connally became governor of Texas in 1963 he quickly sought to get his own man on the state Banking Board. He chose Robert Strauss, then a prominent Dallas lawyer and civic leader (and, not coincidentally, a close Connally ally). But Strauss didn’t want the job and demurred in his characteristic “aw shucks’’ manner, followed by a “why me?’’ protestation. He said he wasn’t qualified because he was completely unschooled in banking matters. When Connally insisted, his friend dutifully accepted the appointment.
Then he distinguished himself on the board while deftly protecting the governor’s interests. Following his departure, he also parlayed his newly developed expertise—and his now-strong connections with former board colleagues, who doled out bank charters—into a highly successful private venture. He helped found a Texas bank, served as its board chairman, then cashed out nicely when it was sold a decade later for nearly $13 million.
This obscure anecdote encapsulates the Bob Strauss who later became famous as one of the most adept Washington operators of his generation. Seldom did he let any learning experience go to waste. Brilliantly effective in multifarious civic capacities, he also managed to keep a close eye on opportunities to serve his own interests. Along the way he demonstrated an uncanny ability to hold political sway over contingents large and small through a combination of human insight and a rare charm fueled by a steady stream of self-effacing humor and disarming candor.
Those traits served him well in Texas and propelled him to stardom in Washington, where he served as treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, then DNC chairman, U.S. special trade representative, special envoy in the Middle East, and ambassador to the Soviet Union. In between these stints he led one of the capital’s most prestigious and innovative law firms, the same firm he had created as a two-man enterprise back in Dallas in 1945.
Now we have a biography as charming as its subject. Kathryn J. McGarr is a blood relative of Strauss—the granddaughter of his brother—and she renders her portrait with manifest affection for her Uncle Bob. Yet, acknowledging that readers might “rightly doubt’’ her objectivity, she avers that she has tried to be “overly skeptical’’ in her assessments. Indeed, she deals head-on with his “enormous ego,’’ his rotations between government jobs and law firm activities designed to influence the government, and his occasionally blithe attitude toward the arcana of campaign finance law—including a possible federal indictment that seemingly was thwarted only by the statute of limitations.
McGarr even notes rumors of a possible affair between her great uncle and Pamela Harriman (which Harriman biographers have dismissed). Strauss himself responded to the whispers by suggesting wryly that, given a choice between having a secret affair with Harriman or merely having untrue rumors of an affair spread throughout Washington, he would unhesitatingly choose the latter as a greater contributor to his image.
Though spiced liberally with such amusing asides, McGarr’s biography is fundamentally an exploration of Washington’s power interrelationships and political culture from a bygone day, not long ago but seemingly far away. Strauss, writes McGarr, represents an “era of civilized politics when Republicans and Democrats worked together to get things done, when they could do so without fear of retribution by their constituents, and when politicians had close friendships with the press.’’ Strauss thrived in that environment and personified some of its best elements.
He was born in 1918 in Lockhart, Texas, and grew up in nearby Stamford, population about 3,000, where the elder Strauss ran a dry goods store. The Strauss family was one of only two Jewish families in town, and they experienced little difficulty in assimilating into the largely Baptist population. Young Bob regularly attended events of the Baptist Young People’s Union, though it was determined that as a non-Baptist he could not serve as president. In later years, Strauss insisted he would have been elected overwhelmingly if allowed to run.
Small and no athlete, he also was a lousy student. But Strauss’s compelling personality and quick wit lifted him into the upper reaches of popularity. Later, at the University of Texas, he joined one of the Jewish fraternities, served as its president, and represented it on the Inter-Fraternity Council, where he became secretary-treasurer. He got to know just about everyone of consequence on campus and, as chairman of ticket sales for a big fraternity dance, demonstrated the fundraising skills for which he later would become famous.
After service in the FBI during World War II, Strauss decided to create his own Dallas law practice, largely because his mediocre law school grades precluded entry into the city’s prestigious firms. He and a law school acquaintance named Dick Gump started with small clients and concentrated on house-sale contracts ($10), wills ($10), and divorces ($50). They bought $2,000 worth of law books with $200 down and $25 in monthly payments. As Strauss later recalled, they had a secretary who earned $60 a month and was drunk most of the time.
But Strauss had an instinct for talent, and soon he recruited some highly effective lawyers who brought in big-time clients. As he said years later, demonstrating his acute self-awareness, “I never was the world’s greatest lawyer. I could always make a noise like a lawyer at anything I handled. I was a quick study . . . not very deep.’’ He served as the firm’s “people person.’’
He also served as its “outside man,’’ representing the firm in a host of civic activities: president of Goodwill Industries in Dallas, as well as the Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation and the Visiting Nurses Association, director of the Community Chest and Red Cross, president of the prestigious Dallas Club, director of numerous local corporations. Inevitably, these activities and the associations they fostered led to politics, an area of endeavor he found much to his liking.
By 1968 he had become his state’s Democratic committeeman and also served as Texas finance chairman for Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign. Now he was positioned to play a significant role in national Democratic politics. Dick West of the Dallas Morning News called him “one of the most powerful party leaders in America,” and Robert Novak wrote that “more than any other single Democrat, Strauss was responsible for Humphrey’s carrying Texas last November.’’ Strauss was learning the art of media relations, whereby the distribution of inside information yields plenty of good ink.
The Democratic party was in bad shape after the 1968 campaign, nearly $9 million in debt. A groundswell emerged for naming Strauss party treasurer, and even some liberals joined the call despite Strauss’s centrist image. He got the job and what he called a “$9 million hangover.’’ On the day he started work, a party official called to say that he had $11,000 in the bank and a $31,000 payroll due on Monday. But Strauss brought to the challenge his well-known passion for accomplishment wrapped in his characteristic bonhomie. One assistant recalled, “I never saw the man in a bad mood.’’
He was known to call total strangers with this message: “Listen, you’ve got so much money you can’t even cover it up. . . . Give us some.’’ A DNC staffer explained to the New York Times, “He does it in such a way that the guy on the other end is laughing his head off.’’ A party official added, “When Strauss goes to work on you, you know you’re being hustled, and you know he knows you know it. But he’s such a funny character, you both end up enjoying it.’’ At one particularly successful fundraising dinner, Strauss brought down the house by declaring, “We look rich enough to be Republicans tonight.’’
Party finances improved, but the party itself descended into a maelstrom of dysfunction and rancor, due largely to liberal reformers bent on redefining it. It couldn’t even manage a convention efficiently, as manifest in the 1972 Miami Beach fiasco, when floor chaos delayed George McGovern’s acceptance speech until after most Americans had gone to bed. On his flight home Strauss vowed to his wife that he was going to “get control of the Democratic Party, throw these bastards out and put this party back together and elect a president.’’ Putting himself forward for chairman, he emerged as the frontrunner. Still, he encountered opposition from liberal reformers. Journalist Nicholas von Hoffman called him “the Babbitt-brained Texas agent of John Connally and the oil interests,’’ but the majority ultimately concluded that Strauss, while a conservative, was the man to reunite the party.
That conciliation effort proved harrowing. He was elected primarily through the strong support of organized labor, particularly the AFL-CIO and its political director, Al Barkan. Barkan wanted to smite the reformers with 51 percent victories whenever possible. But while Strauss appreciated labor’s support and generally sympathized with its outlook, his goal was the 80 percent consensus. That meant labor had to give—which meant, in turn, that Strauss found himself in endless efforts of cajolery.
The immediate challenge was in putting together a slate of executive committee members, to be named by Strauss and approved by the overall DNC. Barkan wanted the slate to be far more heavily tilted toward conservatives than Strauss considered prudent. Instructive was the chairman’s response to a young staffer’s complaints about the late Alan Baron, a party busybody and ardent reformer whose persistent politicking riled many conservatives. If you want to position yourself in the middle, replied Strauss, you have to have both a left and a right.
“Son,’’ he added, “if Alan Baron didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him.’’
Ultimately, Strauss presented his slate with these words: “I remain committed to the proposition that our conservatives are not bigots, our business community is not evil, that our young are not irresponsible, that our minorities are not selfish, our liberals are not foolish, and that our Democratic Party is not leaderless or without purpose.’’ Strauss’s slate passed unanimously, marking him as the quintessential win-win politician, a man who could find the ground upon which nearly all factions could stand.
Strauss delivered to the 1976 national convention a new party ready to wage a strong presidential campaign. No one missed the symbolism that the convention unfolded like clockwork; there were no speeches in the middle of the night. When Georgia’s Jimmy Carter got the presidential nomination, Strauss promptly told him, “I am not the head of this party anymore. You are.’’
Indeed, Strauss ingratiated himself with Carter so thoroughly that the new president considered him indispensable. And Strauss’s unrelenting humor even rubbed off a bit on the usually sober-sided Georgian, who took to asking Strauss when calling him at six in the morning: “Are you drunk or sober?’’ The special trade job was a natural for Strauss, who charged into the multinational trade negotiations under the so-called Tokyo Round, involving tariff and other trade issues with a host of nations. Over two and a half years he negotiated and then successfully lobbied Congress for approval of the Trade Agreements Act of 1979 and brought to the challenge, as McGarr puts it, “bluster, arm-twisting, sweet-talking, and the business and political tactics that he had been honing all his life.’’ Strauss later served Carter in a host of ways, acquiring a reputation as the president’s Mr. Fix-It. His final assignment was as chairman of Carter’s unsuccessful reelection campaign.
It was George H. W. Bush who called on Strauss to serve as ambassador to the Soviet Union. This was an unconventional selection for a post normally held by career diplomats and learned Soviet experts. But most Washington bigwigs hailed the choice as inspired in the era of perestroika. (In the event, Strauss arrived in Moscow in the midst of a coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev.) As events unfolded, usually with Strauss playing an adroit diplomatic role, he became the last American ambassador to the Soviet Union and the first to the new Russian Federation.
Kathryn McGarr brings sprightly writing and strong narrative drive to her tale, which represents a valuable contribution to the ledger of Washington life in the waning decades of the 20th century. As for Strauss, he now approaches his 93rd birthday. His wife of almost 65 years, Helen, who traveled with him extensively throughout the country and the world, and provided sound advice on people and politics, died in 2006. Throughout his quarter-century on the Washington scene, Strauss clearly was a man of his time and milieu: more powerful than many, more effective than most, and more amusing and heartwarming than just about anybody. He operated in a time that is long gone now, but well worth remembering.
Robert W. Merry, former CEO of Congressional Quarterly, is the author, most recently, of A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent.