Robert Strauss, the Dallas lawyer who became a political power on the national and international stage, died Wednesday at age 95.
Strauss was a staunch Democrat, but he advised presidents from both sides of the aisle, from Lyndon Johnson to George H.W. Bush.
Strauss was a Jewish boy, born in Lockhart, a central Texas town best known for barbecue. In interviews with the Academy of Achievement while in his 80s, he recalls his mother convincing him and his brother they were God’s chosen people.
“I was sort of embarrassed by the fact that I was chosen by God and couldn’t tell anybody about it,” he said in one interview. “It was too embarrassing. But I used to walk around and feel kind of sorry for those poor bastards that weren’t chosen by God as I was.”
Strauss would later be chosen by some of the most powerful people in the world.
Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk turned to Strauss when he was appointed U.S. trade representative in 2009. Strauss had held the job three decades earlier.
“All the stereotypes people have of the larger-than-life Texan who can talk his way out of everything – that was Bob Strauss,” Kirk told KERA. “Bob Strauss is perhaps as much as an icon as we could have as how to do politics the right way, how you can fight like hell for causes you believe in but do so in a way where you sit down with your opponent on the other side and break bread and build friendships.”
During World War II, Strauss served as special agent for the FBI. After returning to Dallas, he co-founded what is now one of the country’s largest law firms, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.
He was in his 50s when he took over as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, where he had to come up with creative ways to raise money for the struggling party. One of his ideas? A TV telethon on prime time.
Kathryn McGarr, his grandniece and biographer, told KERA’s Krys Boyd he lined up a cast of politicians, sports figures and entertainers: “He was good friends with Rev. Billy Graham and he was excited about the 1975 telethon, cause he said ‘He’s gonna come on and bless that money while we receive it, and that doesn’t offend me one bit.’”
The telethons were a financial success and helped unite the Democratic Party behind presidential candidate Jimmy Carter.
Under Carter, Strauss was special trade negotiator, inflation-fighter, and representative to the Middle East. Carter also liked Strauss’ sense of humor, and often asked Strauss to introduce him to a crowd.
“I would say ‘The next speaker is the president of the United States,’” Strauss said in an earlier interview. “Now, I’m no fool. I know that you’re not supposed to dress as well as the man you’re introducing, particularly if it is the distinguished president. And I’ll tell you, I have tried to dress worse than this president, but there’s no way in the world I could dress worse than he does’ And the crowd would roar.”
After 1980, when Carter lost his re-election bid, Republican Ronald Reagan turned to Strauss for help navigating the Iran Contra affair.
And in the ‘90s, George H.W. Bush appointed Strauss ambassador to the Soviet Union. When it collapsed, he became the first ambassador to the Russian Federation.
“Strauss just loved being over there as an observer and comparing what he saw in Russia to what he saw in Congress and realizing that politics is universal,” McGarr told KERA.
From Lockhart to Dallas to D.C. and to Moscow, Strauss brought adversaries to the table and brokered deals. Of course, his political knowledge helped, but it was his stories and humor that paved the way.
Robert Strauss, a Dallas lawyer who became chairman of the Democratic Party and ambassador during the fall of the Soviet Union, died Wednesday at age 95.
Strauss was born in Lockhart, Texas, in 1918 and graduated from the University of Texas law school. A longtime political power broker, he was chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1973 to 1976. He also guided the presidential campaigns of Jimmy Carter. During the Carter administration, he served as the nation's trade representative and as a representative to Middle East peace negotiations.
Strauss was ambassador to the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation during the George H.W. Bush administration.
Strauss was an FBI special agent and later co-founded the law firm known today as Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.
Former President George H.W. Bush paid tribute to Strauss, calling him a "particularly effective advocate" for the United States in the U.S.S.R.'s last days.
In a statement issued by his spokesman, Bush says he and the former first lady, Barbara Bush, "mourn the passing of a Texan of legendary influence."
He said Strauss "may have cut his teeth in the brass knuckle and highly partisan political fields of Texas politics, but he counseled several Presidents of the United States of both parties." Bush added, "like the others, I valued his advice highly."
Bush further said Strauss "was our friend and we already miss him dearly."
Reaction from Obama, Kirk
President Barack Obama said Strauss was one of the greatest leaders the Democratic Party ever had.
“Yet presidents of both parties relied on his advice, his instincts and his passion for public service — not to mention his well-honed sense of humor. ... Bob was truly one of a kind,” the president said.
Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk said the first person he turned to after becoming U.S. trade representative in 2009 was Strauss, who had held the job three decades earlier and provided encouragement.
“Nothing gave me more pleasure than ... being able to occupy an office that was shaped and molded by Strauss,” Kirk said. “For all the stereotypes about Texans being full of life and gumption, he was all that and more.” ...
Strauss rarely encountered much criticism.
“He’s the only man in American politics who could go through a carwash with the top down and not get wet,” the late U.S. Rep. Morris Udall, D-Ariz., once said.
In an interview with The Dallas Morning News at the time of his 75th birthday in 1993, Strauss said that, despite his long period of political prominence, he had never given a thought on how he would be remembered. “My friends will remember me,” he said.
And he said he had no regrets about anything in his long and colorful life: “I like the whole damn deal.”
The son of a dry-goods salesman in the small West Texas town of Stamford, Strauss became a successful Dallas lawyer in the 1950s and a close political ally of the late John Connally in the 1960s.
But it was not until the early 1970s, when he was in his 50s, that Strauss emerged on the national scene as the treasurer of the Democratic Party, which was deeply in debt at the time.
As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Strauss helped mastermind his party’s recapture of the White House in 1976 with the election of Jimmy Carter after Senator George McGovern’s resounding defeat in 1972. He went on to become a trusted adviser to Mr. Carter, serving as special trade representative, a negotiator in Middle East peace talks and chief adviser to Mr. Carter’s anti-inflation campaign.
It was Mr. Strauss whom Nancy Reagan asked to tell her husband, President Ronald Reagan, that the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal was corroding his administration and that he had to make changes. It was Mr. Strauss whom President George Bush in 1991 appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union, even after he told the president that he had never voted for him for anything. Mr. Strauss became ambassador to the newly non-Communist Russian Federation.
Bob Woodward wrote in his book “Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate” (1999) that when some Republican leaders in the House of Representatives were having second thoughts about impeaching President Bill Clinton, they turned to Mr. Strauss to ask other Republican leaders to consider censure instead.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.