The Magazine

Paging Mr. Inside

How Bob Strauss operated without drawing blood.

Oct 3, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 03 • By ROBERT W. MERRY
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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.

Photo of Robert Strauss and Anwar Sadat in 1979

Robert Strauss and Anwar Sadat (1979)

Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

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.