The Whole Damn Deal

Robert Strauss and the Art of Politics


By Kathryn J. McGarr

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Robert S. Strauss was for many decades the quintessential Democratic power broker. Born to a poor Jewish family in West Texas, he founded the law firm that became Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, and — while forever changing the nature of the Washington law firm — worked as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, special trade representative, ambassador to the Soviet Union and then Russia, and an advisor to presidents. As former first lady Barbara Bush wrote of Strauss in her memoir: “He is absolutely the most amazing politician. He is everybody’s friend and, if he chooses, could sell you the paper off your own wall.”

But it isn’t the positions Strauss held that make his story fascinating; it is what he represented about the culture of Washington in his day. He was a master of the art of knowing everyone who mattered and getting things done. Based on exclusive access to Strauss, The Whole Damn Deal brings to life a vanished epoch of working behind the scenes, political deal making, and successful bipartisanship in Washington.


For JT

"A friend of yours asked me just within the last couple of months, 'Bob, what do you like best about your entire career?' And I said, 'This is sort of crude, but to tell you the truth, I like the whole damn deal.'"

Washington's Ultimate Insider
WASHINGTON KNEW BOB STRAUSS, one of the town's most colorful and beloved figures since the 1970s, as the consummate power broker and ultimate insider. Strauss had a giant's reputation. He was "the most powerful Democrat," as PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer recently put it, and "the capital's leading wise man," according to the New York Times in 1987.1 High-profile Republican strategist Mary Matalin wrote to him in the 1990s: "I'm not a note writer, but I had to tell you what an honor and treat it was to share that mike with you. I'm in awe of your history and larger-than-lifeness. . . . I love your stories. I love how you play the game."2
Strauss has become a symbol of a bygone 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. "I don't think they make them like that anymore," Tom Brokaw said recently of Strauss. "In part because he at once loved the game of politics—he knew how to make money in Washington, which is not unimportant, by representing lots of different interests—but he was never not a citizen. He really cared about the country, and cared about getting the right things done."3
He embodied a type—"a Bob Strauss," as journalists still put it to this day. With the national Republican Party in turmoil in April 2010, Chris Matthews asked on his MSNBC show Hardball, "Is there a big deal in the Republican Party, a male or female boss from the old school, a Bob Strauss, for example, from the Democratic Party?"4 On Imus in the Morning a few weeks earlier, one-term Republican congressman John Leboutillier, referring to President Barack Obama, said, "He doesn't have a senior statesman, like a Bob Strauss, who would be down the hall and Friday afternoon at the end of the week could walk in and say I've been around this town a long time, Mr. President."5 And, while talking with Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean on Good Morning America during the 2008 primaries about the internal rift that Hillary Clinton and Obama were creating, host Diane Sawyer commented: "Insiders have said maybe a Bob Strauss, if he were still head of the Democratic Party, would have moved in and stopped this long ago."6 Strauss was able to pull people together, regardless of their politics, to make government work. This would have made him an important asset at any time in the nation's history—but one of the most remarkable things about Strauss is that he did it at a time when the country was being torn apart by unprecedented cultural upheavals.
Strauss first gained prominence in Washington as chairman of the Democratic National Committee just as the party seemed to be disintegrating. He unified the Democrats after Richard Nixon's landslide victory over liberal senator George McGovern in the presidential election of 1972, enabling Jimmy Carter to occupy the Oval Office four years later. In light of Watergate, it's easy to forget that President Nixon was ever popular enough to win forty-nine states in the electoral college, or that the DNC could barely pay to keep its phone lines open. At the time, however, Democrats were in such bad shape, both financially and ideologically, that commentators were predicting the end of the two-party system. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Democrats were split between the conservative base and the liberal, McGovernite wing of the party—much as right-wing Republicans today have splintered into the Tea Party.
Strauss held the Democrats together long enough to produce their first successful convention after Chicago's 1968 disaster, the tightly run 1976 convention in New York City, where Carter won the nomination. Through compromise, Strauss created a coalition of old-guard conservatives, minorities, youth, and representatives of both labor and big business that resembled the patchwork Democratic Party we still have to this day. "The party was really torn apart," said another former DNC chairman, Donald Fowler, years later. "It needed a special treatment. It needed a special leader, and Bob fit the times."7
During the Carter administration, Strauss's playing field expanded internationally as he operated as America's chief trade negotiator and ubiquitous presidential adviser. In 1979, when Congress was fiercely protectionist, Strauss—as Carter's special trade representative, a cabinet-level post—lobbied the Hill so intensely that his bill implementing the Tokyo Round of the GATT trade negotiations passed 90-to-4 in the Senate and 395-to-7 in the House. The extent of the bipartisan cooperation on a controversial bill, unpopular in most districts, was rare enough at the time. In today's toxic climate, it's unthinkable. Republicans' foremost reason for trying to scuttle the 2010 health care bill was to break the president—to make it Obama's "Waterloo," as Republican senator Jim DeMint put it. Carter was hardly popular with Congress either, but there was a way to get business done on Capitol Hill in that era. Strauss finessed the trade bill so skillfully that, despite its unpopularity, Congress passed it overwhelmingly.
Whenever the Carter White House faced an insoluble problem, it sent in Strauss, its pinch hitter for everything from disputes within Washington to difficult domestic matters and far-flung international conflicts. Strauss helped gain passage of the Panama Canal Treaty, was a key actor in settling a major coal strike, served as "inflation czar," and represented the president in Middle East peace negotiations. For his service to the country, Carter awarded him the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1981.
With his unmatched popularity on the Hill, Strauss epitomized the ability to make things happen in the political arena with little of the rancor and ideological cheesiness dominating today's politics. As Jim Johnson, a notable Washington Democrat, put it, "No one was the equal to Bob Strauss in the breadth of relationships, the span of influence, the capacity to solve problems—within the Democratic Party, for sure, and beyond the Democratic Party in many cases—because of his willingness to be broadly open to people who were not traditional Democrats." 8 Although the press often called Strauss "Mr. Democrat," he was famous for his friendships with Republicans. "I think that is part of what made him unique," Brokaw said. "There was an enormous reservoir of affection for him across party lines."9 First Lady Barbara Bush wrote about Strauss in her memoir: "He is absolutely the most amazing politician. He is everybody's friend and, if he chooses, could sell you the paper off your own wall."10
Her husband, George H.W. Bush, first befriended Strauss when, in December 1972, they both became chairmen of their respective party national committees.11 Almost twenty years later, in 1991, President Bush appointed Strauss ambassador to the Soviet Union—an extraordinary posting. Although Strauss was not a Sovietologist, he went to Moscow during a critical period of transition. Bush, in close consultation with Strauss's longtime friend Secretary of State Jim Baker, sent Strauss to signal to Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev that America took its relationship with the Soviets seriously. Because they were sent a close personal friend of the president, the Russians had a direct line to the White House. Just two months later, Strauss would land in Moscow in the middle of the coup of August 1991 that resulted in the ascent of Boris Yeltsin. Shortly thereafter, the Soviet Union broke apart, rendering Strauss the last ambassador to the Soviet Union and the first to the new Russian Federation. He cultivated the relationship between Yeltsin and the United States while raising morale at the embassy in Moscow and laying the groundwork for future American investment in Russia.
The New York Times once called Strauss "one of Washington's most adept and respected practitioners at bobbing in and out the revolving door."12 When he was not in government, he was a super-lawyer. Throughout his political career, he built up the law practice he had founded in Dallas in 1945 with Dick Gump, now Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld. In June 1991, just before Strauss left for Moscow, the National Journal ran a story positing that super-lawyers in Washington were "going the way of the dinosaur." The article, which led with the line, "Every Washington lawyer envies Robert S. Strauss," commented that Strauss's blend of special talents was unequaled. With Strauss headed for Moscow, renowned defense attorney Edward Bennett Williams having died three years earlier, perennial and sage presidential adviser Lloyd Cutler at age seventy-three, and Clark Clifford, who had the bearing of a man who always knew the right thing to do, now embroiled in scandal, this was the end of the line for super-lawyers of the "revolving door, Mr. Fix-It," variety.13
With the practice of law everywhere more specialized today, there is less demand for generalists like Clifford or Strauss or their predecessor, Tommy "the Cork" Corcoran, who had their fingers on the few levers of power that used to exist in Washington. Since the 1970s, power on Capitol Hill has grown only more dispersed, and a handful of powerful men no longer run the government. While people still bob in and out of the revolving door, changing ethical standards have made financial disclosure rules more stringent, keeping many high-powered lawyers of the Strauss variety away from government.
Strauss was not just the last of the super-lawyers of the Clark Clifford mold. His legacy extends beyond that of individual super-lawyer. Tommy Boggs, currently one of Washington's premier lobbyists and a longtime personal friend and professional rival of Strauss's, observed, "I think that the difference between the two is that Clark Clifford was an individual adviser. Bob Strauss built an institution of advisers. And that's quite a different playing field."14
Akin, Gump is currently one of the top forty highest-grossing firms in the world and among the top forty largest in the nation.15 In terms of lobbying revenue, it is ranked second, behind only Boggs's firm, Patton, Boggs.16
When Strauss brought Akin, Gump to Washington in 1971, just a year after he moved there part time to be treasurer of the DNC, the established law firms did not have legislative practices. Lawyers practicing at law firms simply did not lobby. In fact, Akin, Gump did not have a legislative practice for its first few years in Washington because Strauss wanted to establish it as a traditional law practice before the firm tried its hand at lobbying. When it did, the legislative practice became so lucrative that other Washington firms had to catch up and build lobbying arms as Strauss had done. "Bob—his work and his support for Akin, Gump—changed the whole nature of the legal establishment in Washington and how it relates to the government," said Daniel Spiegel, a longtime partner at Akin, Gump, now at Covington and Burling. "He was one of the pioneers in that area, he and the firm."17
Republican Ken Mehlman—former RNC chairman and chairman of George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign—also a partner at Akin, Gump, said Strauss was "a very pivotal figure in D.C.": "You'd always had wise men before, but he was kind of the epitome of the bipartisan wise man who understood and had the confidence of people in business. And he performed that [role] at a time when business became increasingly focused on politics."18 Strauss served on the boards of PepsiCo, Xerox, Columbia Pictures, AT&T, and Archer-Daniels-Midland and had influence in the corporate world that few politicians—especially Democratic ones—enjoyed.
Though Brokaw noted that Strauss knew how to make money in Washington, perhaps more impressively, he knew how to avoid getting in trouble for it. There are many mistakes that Strauss, unlike some of his contemporaries—such as Clark Clifford, whose reputation was tarnished in the early 1990s in a scandal involving the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, a banking enterprise rife with corruption and criminal connections—never made.
As treasurer and then chairman of the Democratic Party during the Watergate era, Strauss saw fellow fundraisers indicted and others convicted. He narrowly escaped indictment himself for accepting illegal corporate campaign contributions in the early 1970s. He spent the rest of his career in Washington navigating the murky waters where politics, money, and the corporate world intersected without ever getting wet. He knew how to avoid the appearance of impropriety through candidness about conflicts of interest, of which Strauss had many. He thought a fellow ought to be able to enter the revolving door without coming out of it, as he would say, a whore. "I learned early that you just have to play it straight, and you can survive anything," Strauss recently said.19
The Washington establishment also protected Strauss. In 1990, economist Pat Choate—Ross Perot's 1996 running mate—wrote a book, Agents of Influence, calling into question the integrity of former U.S. officials who went on to lobby for Japan, including Strauss, whom Choate also accused of making secret deals with the Japanese as Carter's special trade representative. Republican senator John McCain of Arizona, now considered to be fueling the rancorous divisions between the two parties, vehemently defended Strauss at a Senate hearing at the time. His defense illustrates how protective Washington was of Bob Strauss and how strongly held was the belief in his honesty. "Mr. Choate, you've made a serious mistake by maligning the reputation of one of the most outstanding men in America, Mr. Robert Strauss, particularly for something that took place thirteen years ago," McCain said. "I have differed with Mr. Strauss on almost every occasion, but there has never been any question about his integrity, his service to this nation, and the outstanding contributions that he has made."20
Another reason that Strauss avoided scandal in a life that has spanned more than ninety years was that he had at least twice the good judgment of an average person. In addition to his own keen common sense, he had that of Vera Murray, his executive assistant of forty years, who served more as chief of staff than secretary throughout Strauss's Washington career. It would be impossible to overstate Murray's importance in Strauss's life—and not just because I, like everyone who has ever worked with Strauss, prefer being on her good side. She has provided him with sound judgment and a sounding board for four decades.
Or perhaps Strauss merely stayed out of trouble in Washington because, as he always said, he was already "one rich son-of-a-bitch." Much of his money derived from interests outside the Beltway, such as real estate and investments in banks and radio stations, especially in the South and Southwest. Strauss said he always advised young people who were interested in politics, "Get yourself established and have a few dollars in your bank account before you come to Washington, where you can tell them anytime you want to, to go to hell. And you don't have to worry about cheating on an expense account or anything else. You have a little independence. Or you have to have very limited desires. You can't have both." He went on to clarify, "I don't mean that just rich people should go in [to government]. That would really be bad. But, boy, it sure is a lot easier, without cutting corners, when you don't have to be tempted."21
When political writer Marjorie Williams in 1993 commented, in a profile of Strauss's law partner Vernon Jordan for Vanity Fair, that Strauss was "a relentless self-promoter who has back-slapped his way to the status of Washington power broker," it obviously sounded unflattering.22 It sounded bad. But it wasn't bad. People in power liked Strauss, and they liked when he slapped their backs. They even seemed to enjoy the relentless self-promotion, which was part of the Strauss aura. As Carter chief of staff Hamilton Jordan put it in Crisis, a book about the final year of the Carter presidency, "What made him unusual and attractive in a community of political and social climbers was that he made no attempt to disguise his own considerable ego and freely admitted to both playing the game and enjoying it."23
"Strauss has gained influence by practicing politics the old-fashioned way," wrote Stanley Cloud in a Time magazine profile of Strauss in 1988. "Whether he is pushing the Democrats' trade bill or trying to get federal help for Texas banks and savings and loans (including one in which he has an interest) or acting as a middleman for the U.S. and Canada on bilateral trade, the techniques are the same: press flesh, build relationships, probe for strengths and weaknesses." Cloud, discussing what people typically had to say about Strauss, wrote: "People will tell you . . . that Strauss is loyal to a fault.... And they'll relate his many personal kindnesses. Others will say, privately, that he's a fraud, an egomaniac, that his reputation is rooted more in legend than in fact, that he is too often the weather vane and too rarely the wind."24
This image of power—the legend that Strauss cultivated—had its foundations in real power. Elizabeth Drew, in a 1979 New Yorker profile of him, observed, "Strauss's power is peculiar to Strauss and is his own creation. He parlays just about every situation into more than most others could make of it, charms more people, and works harder at it all than just about anybody around."25 In other words, he was not merely slapping backs.
Strauss's power derived from his ability to get things done—"the art of making things happen instead of just tilting at windmills," as he once put it.26 On his desk Strauss had a little sign, in gold lettering on maroon leather, from his friend W. Averell Harriman, the former presidential adviser, governor of New York, and ambassador to the Soviet Union, that said, "It CAN be done."27 In the late 1990s, as Strauss was trying to write his memoirs with a journalist he had hired, he commented on the sign in a way that so simply, even childishly, captured his life philosophy: "I really believe things can be done. You have to be optimistic that you can get things done, and usually you can get things done."28 Strauss got things done by knowing how Washington worked. In particular, he had the right relationships with the other people in power who made it work.
He also had an unparalleled relationship with the political press, who were enamored with Strauss. "What's the first thing about Bob Strauss?" asked Sam Donaldson, former White House correspondent and ABC news anchor. "He's a very . . . likeable . . . man. If that's all there was, we wouldn't be sitting here, but that's the first prerequisite."29 In the late 1990s, Strauss called his relationship with the press "incestuous": "And everyone knows it," he added. "And I don't care whether it's Johnny Apple or Bob Novak. I have that kind of relationship. I don't know why—I just do. I like the press, and they me."30
Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes remembered how Strauss was "endless fun to be with. You always wanted to be in his company because of this vibrant, impish sense of humor." "He'd get a little smile on his face . . . and you knew some kind of funny zinger was coming. He was like a batter winding up—you'd see the windup on his face."31 Strauss was easily the funniest man in Washington at the time, and he knew it.
Equally important, Strauss was proud to be an insider and a politician, even when those were considered dirty words. Longtime Washington reporter Jack Germond recalled, "I always had a soft spot for him because I liked the fact that he always wore his heart on his sleeve about politics. He enjoyed it, he enjoyed the roles he played, and he was open about it."32
Strauss's ego was one of his most charming assets. His name was mentioned in newspapers as a possible presidential candidate prior to the 1984, 1988, and 1992 elections, and although he never actually ran, in 1986 he was named the Alfalfa Club's mock presidential nominee at its annual banquet. (Other nominees of this elite Washington club over the years have included Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush.) Strauss's acceptance speech was a pitch-perfect example of his own brand of humor—the farthest from self-deprecating one can be. He began: "Over 120 years ago, under similar circumstances as I stand here tonight, Abraham Lincoln said, and I quote, 'I must confess, in all candor, I do not feel myself qualified for the presidency.' Fellow Alfalfans, that's where Abe and I part company!" He continued: "Richard Nixon pledged that he was not a crook, Jimmy Carter pledged that he would never tell the American people a lie. I reject that limited view of the presidency."33
While his power derived from being a friend to the White House and a force on the Hill, those relationships all came down to his personality—the sparkle in his eye, his enormous and endearing ego, his humor, and his colorful way of speaking "Texan" that seemed to require him to say "goddamn," "son-of-a-bitch," and "whore" several times in any conversation.
He loved the idea of the smoke-filled room, yet he knew better than to make decisions in them when he was chairman of the Democratic Party. He loved flirting with women, calling them darlin', and joking that he would run away with them, but without straying from his wife, Helen, whom he adored and about whom he spoke constantly. He had a Texas-sized ego but not in the way many powerful men do, to mask insecurities—he is the most secure person I have ever met. He loved money but made enough of it early in his career, back in Dallas, to ensure that pure greed would never drive a business decision. He loved traveling to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, but he always spent the summer at his small beach cottage in Del Mar, California. He was fun to be with because he was unpredictable—people never knew what outrageous thing he would say. But the foundations of his life were ever predictable: He remained active in his law firm for more than sixty-five years; was married to his wife for more than sixty, until her death; and lived at the Watergate apartment complex in Washington for more than forty, to this day.
Strauss's mother, a hard-working, no-nonsense woman born of German-Jewish immigrants in Texas, encouraged him to eat dessert first in case he wasn't hungry for it after dinner. With exuberance and optimism, Strauss turned the rest of his life into dessert. As he liked to put it—sometimes using a more colorful curse word—he could not pick a favorite part of his life because he liked the "whole damn deal." His optimism was not an affectation that he put on for journalists but the most essential part of Bob Strauss and one of the reasons he was so popular in Washington. He once wrote in a letter to his teenaged grandson, "Now, if you will remember what your old grandfather told you the other day—think positive. Things are always good or great or terrific. You will find that life is easier every day."34
Before going further, I must admit that I do not call Strauss "Mr. Ambassador" when I address him, nor do I call him "Mr. Strauss," or even "Bob." I call him "Uncle Bob"—and not because I think he's avuncular, which he is. "Strauss," as I have learned to call him for the purposes of this political biography, is my great-uncle. My efforts at making his story as close to the truth as possible and with as little editorializing as possible have been considerable, and I hope that Strauss's family (my own) will respect any criticisms and delight in the praise. To those outside the family who rightly doubt my objectivity, all I can say is that, if anything, I have been overly skeptical. It might surprise his many friends in Washington to know that, most of the time, Bob is telling the truth. Anyway, it surprised me.
Within the Beltway, a Strauss memoir was considered to be one of the best books never written—a white whale of publishing. Many are surprised at the absence of a Strauss book, partly because of that very reputation for having an enormous ego. "Bob does have a tendency to brag," wrote Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill in his memoir, Man of the House, "and it's always been a toss-up as to who had the biggest ego in Washington—Robert Strauss or Henry Kissinger."35 After all, Kissinger not only published his memoirs, but did so in three volumes.
Strauss tried to produce his memoirs. In the late 1990s, he hired journalist Peter Ross Range to collaborate on an autobiography. Although Strauss made a few attempts to write such a book, usually with a collaborator from within his law firm, the Range effort was the most sustained, lasting a year and occupying two or three hours a day, with a full draft by the end of it. The memoir was never published and ended up scattered in boxes in a large and dusty storage room at Akin, Gump along with transcripts of the more than seventy interviews conducted at that time that Strauss has allowed me to use in writing this biography. In this book, I have quoted from the interview transcripts, not from the draft of the memoir.
Despite his ego, that Strauss never successfully published a memoir should not be surprising. As much as he promoted himself in backslapping lunches at Duke Zeibert's—one of the bygone Washington power restaurants with the kind of no-frills deli food that Strauss subsisted on—he was loath to do it in writing. Jim Lehrer, who has known Strauss since the 1960s when they were both in Dallas, told me that, "despite all his bluster and all of that—seeming bluster—he wasn't a man who was looking for publicity. In fact, he always said, 'You show me a guy who talks about all the power he has. If he continues to do that, he isn't going to have it much longer.'"36 Strauss even told Range, the journalist he had hired, "I tell people all the time, I talk too much, and I know it. But there's one thing you've got to remember. There's a big difference between talking too much and saying too much. I rarely, if ever, say too much."37


On Sale
Oct 11, 2011
Page Count
480 pages

Kathryn J. McGarr

About the Author

Kathryn J. McGarr received her BA in history from Stanford University and an MS in journalism from Columbia University where she was awarded the Lynton Fellowship for book writing. Her work has appeared in Politico, among other places.

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