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 congressional campaign.
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 Banking Commission.
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 Barbara 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 award.
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 practice.
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.