Some of the fun ebbed out of politics and public life yesterday with the death of Bob Strauss. And some of the harmony, too.
Lawyer, diplomat, negotiator, political insider, consummate fund-raiser, silver-tongued devil — all the titles and descriptions fit Bob Strauss, who died in Washington, his adopted home town, at 95 on March 19.
I knew him best as Democratic National Chairman, special trade representative and Middle East negotiator during the Carter Administration. When he was raising money, big money, for Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign, I accompanied him on a cross-country swing to report a New York Times Magazine cover story.
It was a marvel to see how effortlessly he could talk captains of industry out of their cash, always with a twinkle in his eye. “Gentlemen,” he began before a gathering of heavy hitters at the exclusive Los Angeles Club, “I am out here for cold-blooded political reasons…”
Strauss had been born in a tiny, Last Picture Show sort of town in Texas, spent his 30’s and 40’s practicing law and making millions in Dallas, his 50’s raising money for the Democratic National Committee and his early 60’s as an all-purpose Mr. Fix-it for President Carter. Later, he advised President Reagan and in his 70’s, went to Moscow as U.S. Ambassador immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union representing President George H.W. Bush.
He loved money and the luxuries it could provide. He told me that he made more money in Dallas as a lawyer and banker than he could ever spend, but he gave it a try with his fancy suits, Watergate penthouse and personal limousine and driver. Strauss caused a minor scandal during the famously cheap Carter Administration by always flying first class, in violation of government regulations. Asked at a White House briefing if he was going to continue booking himself into the front of the plane, he smiled and said: “Yes, until they invent something better.”
Bob and Helen Strauss kept a large home in Dallas and would fly there most weekends from Washington. Neither one of them liked to swim, but he built a large pool behind the house. “I like to mix a martini, go outside in the evening, turn on the lights” he explained, “and say to myself, ‘Strauss, you one rich sombitch.’”
Strauss prided himself as the ultimate conciliator, and indeed he could sweet-talk the most combative politicians into his point of view. He wasn’t always successful, of course, Carter lost his re-election bid, the Middle East is still a mess and Russia is not very cooperative these days, but he always enjoyed the game.
No regrets, he told me, “none at all.”