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Robert Strauss, versatile Democratic insider, Texan and troubleshooter, dies at 95

Joe Holley
(c) 2014, The Washington Post.
WASHINGTON — Robert Strauss, a smooth-talking Texas lawyer and businessman who became a consummate political insider and played a key role in reviving the Democratic Party's fortunes after its landslide loss to Republicans in the 1972 election, died March 19 in Washington. He was 95.

A grandson, Robert Strauss Jr., confirmed the death but did not cite a cause.

Stauss held several influential positions in politics and government: Democratic national chairman, special trade representative and Middle East troubleshooter during the Carter administration, and the first U.S. ambassador to Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. But the formal titles and positions did not define the man.

With his down-home West Texas twang and unforced friendliness, his inside-the-Beltway savvy and penchant for knowing where power resided and cultivating access to it, Strauss was, in the words of Washington lobbyist Harry McPherson Jr., a "natural intermediary." He brought people together. He smoothed over differences. He made things happen.

Strauss was appointed Democratic National Committee chairman after Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., lost his White House bid to President Richard Nixon in 1972 — the worst defeat ever suffered by a major party presidential candidate. He took charge of a fractious, debt-ridden party and, in four years, not only restored it to solvency but also charmed and harangued old-line party bosses and new-wave "McGovernites" into a semblance of party unity. During his four-year tenure, Democrats achieved a net gain of 48 House members, seven senators, six governors and one president.

He was credited with providing the margin of difference in must-win Texas for presidential candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976. He was able to defuse attacks by former Texas governor John Connally, a longtime friend and a GOP convert, and to persuade Lady Bird Johnson, the former first lady, to express support, however tepid, for Carter. Strauss also talked Carter into making a final campaign swing through the Rio Grande Valley, a Democratic stronghold at the time.

No Democratic chairman "has ever done a better job of nursing his party back from brutal defeat to top-to-bottom victory than Strauss has done," Washington Post political columnist David Broder wrote in 1977.

Strauss agreed. "I'd hate to be the guy who's got to follow my act," he observed, his disarming immodesty in full display.

He was a lifelong Democrat, but his willingness to work with members of both parties was his stock in trade. Former House speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, alluded to that trait when he once offered a toast to Strauss at a private dinner: "It's an honor to have with us a close friend of the next president of the United States — whoever the hell he may be."

Strauss's base of operations was the law firm that bears his name, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, one of the most powerful in Washington. As a lawyer he was known as the master of the deal, rather than a legal technician. Unlike the other lawyers in the large firm, he did not keep time records. "I don't work by the hour anymore. I don't do windows," he said.

In 1990, he brokered a mega-deal in which Japan's third-largest company, Matsushita Electric Industrial, bought out Hollywood entertainment giant MCA for $7.5 billion. Strauss, who sat on the MCA board of directors — and who represented neither side and both sides — was facilitator, energizer and shuttle diplomat during secret negotiations to consummate the deal. He and his firm picked up $8 million in fees from MCA. Strauss directed that the money be used to establish a retirement plan at Akin Gump.

Gregarious and good-humored, he was known for a healthy ego and an explosive temper, both of which came into play if someone made the mistake of describing him as "a fixer."

"I detest that word," he told Time magazine in 1988. ". . . It sounds cheap. It's not me. I don't know how to fix anything. Hell, I've never even fixed a traffic ticket. . . . What I do is help make the government work."

He was nearly 60 when he took his first job in government, as President Carter's special representative for trade negotiations, with the personal rank of ambassador. He also served as Carter's anti-inflation czar. His successor, Alfred Kahn, told The Washington Post in 1991 that Strauss's strategy for fighting inflation was to "pick up the phone and swear," although Kahn conceded that swearing could be effective.

In April 1979, after the signing of the Camp David Accords, Carter appointed Strauss his special Middle East negotiator. Strauss was reluctant to take the job but agreed to make a quick trip to the Middle East to see how he worked "one on one" with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

He and other administration officials agreed that the chemistry generated on the trip was promising. The ever-confident Strauss decided to try his hand at high-level diplomatic negotiating, although he stayed in the position only a few months and made little headway in bringing the two sides closer together.

Nearly a decade later, when the Reagan White House was in disarray in the wake of the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal, first lady Nancy Reagan invited Strauss and other Washington insiders to the White House for a private conversation with the president. The straight-talking Texan advised Reagan to clean house.

"I told the president the truth," he told The New York Times in 1987. "It's very tough to tell a president things he doesn't want to hear, and he didn't take my advice."

Although he never held elective office, there was talk, discreetly fueled by Strauss himself, that he had presidential aspirations. Political columnist Jack Germond, writing in Washingtonian magazine in 2005, recalled a 1983 breakfast conversation with Strauss at the Watergate hotel. The Texan broached the idea.

"If you know Strauss, that is understandable," Germond wrote. "He is smarter than most — probably all — the presidents in my time, and he knows how to get things done. But, as I quickly pointed out, he was a Jew from Texas and a lawyer and businessman who had made a lot of money in ways that might have to be defended. Above all, he had a wise mouth that no candidacy could survive in this age of political correctness. I violated my rule against giving advice to politicians and told him to go upstairs to his apartment and take a cold shower, thus earning the everlasting gratitude of Helen Strauss."

Helen Jacobs Strauss, Strauss's wife of 65 years and closest confidante, died in 2006. Survivors include three children, Robert Strauss Sr. of Tucson, Ariz. and Richard Strauss and Susan Breen, both of Dallas; a brother; seven grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Germond's advice wasn't totally persuasive. "If I were four years younger, I'd be running," Strauss told The New York Times in 1987. "I want to be president, I'd love to be president. I'd know how to make the presidency function."

President George H.W. Bush, elected president the next year, hoped that Strauss might help a fledgling democracy function. In 1991, six months after Strauss brokered the MCA deal, Bush named him ambassador to the Soviet Union. He was 73 at the time and arrived in Moscow in the midst of an abortive three-day coup.

"I didn't go over there as a typical ambassador with typical diplomatic responsibilities," Strauss told The Dallas Morning News. "I had neither the background nor the knowledge. I had to go over there and establish some personal relationships that gave this government a little bit of a seat at the table over there where you could help to influence decisions that were being made and actions that were being taken. And that played to my strength."

He forged friendships with Russian leaders Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, and he became a mentor of sorts to government ministers and business executives. He lobbied Congress in support of the Freedom Support Act, a $24 billion Western aid package for Russia and other Eastern European nations that Congress approved in 1992.

Robert Schwarz Strauss was born Oct. 19, 1918, in Lockhart, Texas, southeast of Austin, and he grew up in the small West Texas town of Stamford.

His father, Charles Strauss, was an aspiring concert pianist who emigrated from Germany in 1915. Landing in New York, Charles Strauss wangled a job as a traveling piano salesman. On a swing through Texas, he met and married Edith Schwartz, whose family had been in Texas since the 1850s.

Robert Strauss and his brother grew up in modest circumstances — in part because their father liked to gamble — and helped out behind the counter of their parents' dry goods store.

"My mother always was convinced that I was going to have a career in public life," Strauss told The Dallas Morning News in 1993. "That's one of the reasons she pushed me to be a lawyer. She used to always say, 'Bobby is going to be the first Jewish governor that Texas ever had.' And I think my relatives got a little tired of hearing that from time to time."

As a student at the University of Texas at Austin in the late 1930s, Strauss was a member of a Jewish fraternity and worked as a clerk at the state Capitol. Among his classmates were a number of men who would become Texas political figures: Jake Pickle and Joe Kilgore, both future congressmen; Frank Erwin, future state university regent and power broker; and Connally, with whom he formed an enduring friendship.

"We were all John Connally contemporaries, but yet John Connally was always sort of chairman of the board," he told an oral historian in 1969.

In 1937, Strauss volunteered in the first congressional campaign of a young man from the Texas Hill Country who was running as an enthusiastic supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Lyndon Johnson, Strauss said in the oral history interview, "captured my imagination and has had it ever since." He recalled handing out LBJ circulars around the courthouse square in Lockhart.

He received his law degree from the University of Texas in 1941 and joined the FBI as a special agent in lieu of military service during World War II. In 1945, he left the FBI and helped found Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld in Dallas. He also made millions of dollars investing in real estate, radio stations and banking and in 1964 became president of the Strauss Broadcasting Co.

When Connally made a successful run for governor of Texas in 1962, Strauss was one of his chief fundraisers. Connally appointed him to the state banking board, on which he served for six years.

In 1966, Connally named him to the Democratic National Committee. As manager of the 1968 Humphrey-Muskie campaign in Texas, he achieved what some called a "small miracle of statesmanship" by persuading the governor and his archenemy, liberal Sen. Ralph Yarborough, D-Texas, to campaign together for the national ticket. He was elected treasurer of the Democratic Party in 1970.

Throughout his life, Strauss enjoyed creature comforts, from Savile Row suits and flashy rings to private planes and limousines. He had a penthouse apartment in the Watergate and homes in Bal Harbour, Fla., and in Dallas, where he built a swimming pool, he said, for one reason: so he could go home at night, look at the pool and "tell myself I'm one rich sumbitch"

He and his wife also kept a summer "cottage" in Del Mar, Calif., where they loved to bet on the ponies at the picturesque racetrack beside the Pacific. He also owned a racehorse with former treasury secretary Nicholas F. Brady.

"Do you have any regrets about anything?" a Dallas newspaper asked him in 1993.

"No," Strauss said, "I don't have any regrets about anything in my life. I like the whole damn deal."

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