Bob Strauss, one-time DNC chairman, former US Trade Representative and the first US Ambassador to a post-communist Soviet Union, died at the age of 95 yesterday. Strauss was probably lucky to have done most of his political work in a past generation rather than this one. To many of today’s Democrats, he would have seemed the ultimate devil-figure. He was a virtual caricature of a Texas wheeler-dealer; founder of one of DC’s biggest power law/lobbying firms; an abiding presence in bipartisan schemes benefiting corporate interests; and a fast friend of the Tory wing of the Texas Democratic Party, exemplified by his close friend John Connally. His embodiment of an older and somewhat unsavory kind of public service was best illustrated when his old Texas adversary George H.W. Bush sent him to Moscow as ambassador “to cut some oil deals” (as was widely assumed at the time) and he suddenly found himself a bewildered figure in the middle of a world-historical event.
But when it came to electoral politics, Strauss was a stone partisan, like many southern Democrats of his era who might tilt conservative on policy but loved a good, vicious political knife fight. He chaired and revived the DNC when it was in financial and organizational chaos after the 1972 debacle, and played a key role in the most surprising presidential campaign of his lifetime, Jimmy Carter’s improbable 1976 victory. It was typical of the claustrophobic world he inhabited that Strauss chaired Carter’s re-election committee in 1980 even as his old friend Connally was running for president as a Republican.
Even among his enemies left and right, Strauss had a strong reputation for a peculiar sort of Texas charm; as I can attest from the couple of encounters I had with him as a young staffer for a Democratic governor, he had a way of addressing others with obscenity-laced endearments that somehow never offended its objects. He was, in short, a genuine character, and like his most famous friend, Lyndon Johnson, a symbol of a kind of politics that is hard to understand today. He would make the perfect subject for a House of Cards-style TV drama, though finding someone to play him would test Hollywood’s ingenuity, and in the end most viewers probably would not believe that anyone like him had actually ever lived. Strauss would enjoy that most of all.