Two months after the passing of former Ambassador Robert S. Strauss, each day’s headlines remind me of his story.
A Texas Democrat loved almost as much by Republicans, Strauss was remembered by former Secretary of State James Baker as a Washington lawyer and power broker, but also for “bipartisan bridge-building … our country desperately needs.”
I know this is tough to believe, but Republicans and Democrats used to speak to one another.
Until his death March 19 at 95, Strauss listened to both.
As a centrist Democrat like Lyndon B. Johnson and John Connally, Strauss became chairman of the Democratic National Committee; he rallied the party in 1976 to elect President Jimmy Carter.
As ambassador to the Soviet Union and then Russia under President George H.W. Bush, he modeled bipartisanship to skeptical Communist Party leaders.
When friends remembered him at memorials March 24 in Dallas’ Temple Emanu-el and April 23 in Washington National Cathedral, they described him as a troubleshooter, a gregarious jokester and an active user of the expletive shortened as “SOB,” which in his Stamford drawl began with sum.
“No one will ever use it as well as Bob,” said Alan Feld, a Dallas-based senior executive partner at the law firm Strauss co-founded, Akin Gump.
In a video memoir on the Akin Gump website, Feld summed up Strauss’ philosophy:
“He believed the secret of Washington, and the secret of the U.S., is compromise through negotiation. He believed that a Republican and a Democrat could have a respectful solution and come up with a solution to any problem.”
Or at least, that’s how it was in the 1970s and ’80s.
In friends’ joking letters and comments, Strauss was also remembered for his skill at working the system.
As Carter’s special envoy to the Middle East peace talks, Strauss had to fly coach under White House rules, the president wrote in a letter read at the National Cathedral.
“Bob … came to me to explain in his own respectful, but creative and memorable way,” Carter wrote, “why he needed to be an exception.”
Carter also remembered Strauss asking for flashing lights and a siren so he could rush to Capitol Hill.
D.C. officials told Strauss that would take a presidential order, Carter wrote: “Bob said, ‘I’ll be back in an hour.’ I’m sure it was under an hour. I’m not sure it was my signature.”
Former President Bill Clinton sent the memory of his favorite Strauss one-liner: “Every politician wants voters to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself.”
President George W. Bush sent a note calling Strauss a “straight shooter with a keen wit.”
But Baker remembered Strauss’ one-liner once about the younger Bush: “George W. thought that fettuccine alfredo was the president of Italy.”
From an early age, Temple Emanu-el Rabbi David Stern said, Strauss mastered colorful language.
A Wichita Falls rabbi visited the family once and only once in Stamford, Stern said, after a young Strauss responded to the Exodus story by saying, “Well, I’ll be a sum …”
Along the way, he built a law firm, shaped corporate mergers, served his country as an ambassador, steered the course of 20th-century politics and helped shape the 1980s peace in the Middle East.
At both memorials, mourners tearfully sang America the Beautiful.
Several speakers repeated Strauss’ most-quoted line: “Civility does not have to be something that only old men recollect.”
The point is lost on today’s Washington.