to Making the Case
ROBERT S. STRAUSS (b. 1918)
Dubbed by one journalist as the “insider’s
insider,” Robert S. Strauss used his skills with people to
reinvigorate the Democratic Party in the wake of its disastrous 1968
national convention in Chicago and presidential nominee George
McGovern’s overwhelming defeat in 1972. But the Democrats
weren’t the only ones who benefited from Strauss’ talents.
Presidents from both parties turned to him for advice.
Born in Lockhart in 1918, Strauss grew up in the West Texas towns of
Hamlin and Stamford, where his father opened a small general store.
Strauss was outgoing and gregarious as a child, and his mother
predicted he would have a career in politics or as a diplomat.
In an interview, Strauss recalled that his mother was fond of saying
at family gatherings, “My son Bobby is going to be a diplomat,
and he’s going into politics, and he’ll be the first Jewish
governor of the state of Texas.”
Strauss began working in political campaigns while in college. During
his sophomore year at the University of Texas, Strauss campaigned for
Travis B. Dean, who was running for a seat in the Texas Legislature.
When Dean won, Strauss became a clerk for a legislative committee. In
1937, Strauss volunteered to work in Lyndon B. Johnson’s first
Although still interested in politics, Strauss pursued other
interests as well. After graduating from the University of Texas School
of Law in 1941, Strauss served as a special agent of the FBI during
World War II. In 1945, he launched his private law practice. Strauss
and Richard A. Gump founded the firm that became Akin Gump Strauss
Hauer & Feld.
Over the years, Strauss made a name for himself working behind the
scenes for a number of politicians, including John Connally, who had
been Strauss’ friend and classmate in law school. Strauss was a
campaign adviser and fundraiser for Connally’s 1962 gubernatorial
campaign, and Connally subsequently appointed Strauss to the Texas
A prodigious fundraiser, Strauss became treasurer of the Democratic
Party in 1971 and was elected chairman of the Democratic National
Committee in 1973. As Democrats tried to recover from the throttling
that McGovern had suffered in 1972, Strauss was busy rebuilding the
party’s finances and making plans for the 1976 national convention
in New York City. Former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter won the
Democratic nomination for president. With Strauss holding the reins,
the convention ran smoothly, and the Democrats were united for the fall
1976 campaign. Carter, who picked Strauss to chair his election
campaign, narrowly defeated President Gerald Ford, and Strauss won
acclaim as a political kingmaker.
While the Democratic Party chairman, Strauss also was able to help
his old friend Connally, who was accused of accepting two illegal
gratuities from a lobbyist for milk producers while serving as U.S.
Treasury secretary under President Richard Nixon. Connally denied that
the payments were made, and Strauss persuaded U.S. Representative
Jordan (D-Houston) to testify that Connally
had a reputation of honesty. Getting Jordan to testify for Connally
required some persuasion, as Jordan was a liberal Democrat, and
Connally, formerly a conservative Democrat, had switched parties.
Strauss became a top adviser to Carter during his presidency, serving
as a special trade representative and completing negotiations for new
trade agreements. Carter subsequently named Strauss as his personal
representative to the Middle East in the hope that Strauss could build
on the peace treaty that Egypt and Israel had signed earlier. The
seizure of Americans as hostages in Iran cast a dark cloud over
Carter’s presidency, however. Although Strauss again served as
Carter’s campaign chairman in 1980, the president lost his
re-election bid. Before Carter left office, he awarded Strauss the
Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian
During President Ronald Reagan’s second term, Strauss advised
the president to replace Donald Regan as his chief of staff. Strauss
recalled that at Nancy Reagan’s urging, he told the president
that Regan was not the man for the job. At the time, the White House was
in chaos because of allegations that the administration had been
involved in the Iran-Contra affair. Although President Reagan initially
was angered by Strauss’ advice, he took it and named former U.S.
Senator Howard Baker as his chief of staff.
Under President George H.W. Bush, Strauss served as the U.S.
ambassador to the Soviet Union and then as ambassador to the Russian
Federation. As the ambassador, Strauss witnessed the final days of the
Soviet Union and the beginning of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, and
he helped establish a relationship of trust with Yeltsin. In November
1992, Strauss resigned from the Foreign Service to return to his law
Strauss remains a partner in Akin Gump. The Robert S. Strauss Center
for International Security and Law at the University of Texas is named
in his honor.