The Resurrection of Bob Strauss

Perhaps the most painful consequence of George W. Bush’s presidential victory (or whatever you want to call it) is the prospect that people will start calling Robert Strauss “Mr. Democrat” again. Strauss is a Texas-born Washington influence peddler who, on the strength of serving in 1972 as chairman of the Democratic Party and later as Jimmy Carter’s U.S. trade representative and the head of Carter’s unsuccessful re-election campaign, acquired the sobriquet, “Mr. Democrat.” For the last two decades, Strauss peddled his “Mr. Democrat” image mainly to Republicans and his corporate clients, who flattered themselves that in doing business with Bob Strauss, they were reaching across some sort of ideological chasm. The Washington press corps, taken in by Strauss’ artful leaking and relentless flattery, played along. Writing in the New York Times in December 1987 (“Out of Texas, the Capital’s Leading Wise Man”), Steve Roberts observed:

He has become a senior statesman who bridges partisan rivalry and ideological factionalism. The capital needs such elders, people known for their straight talk and sound advice, and every generation seems to produce a few. … His real influence in Washington derives not from his past titles, but from the force of his personality and the quality of his judgment. … Asked to describe himself, Mr. Strauss says simply, “I’m terribly partisan, but I think people trust me.”

In truth, as Slate Editor Michael Kinsley observed the following year (in one of the columns collected in his book Big Babies), the notion of Strauss as an elder statesman beloved by the Democratic party was always something akin to an elaborate prank played by Washingtonians on the rest of the world. Strauss was really a Washington fixer, a sort of Manucher Ghorbanifar on the Potomac, the only real difference being that “no one calls [the Iran-contra intermediary] ‘Mr. Shiite.’ “

After 1992, Strauss wasn’t heard from much; the absence of a Republican administration meant there was little need for a conservative Democrat to hang around the White House and lend an aura of bipartisanship. As a rainmaker, Strauss was eclipsed at his firm, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer, & Feld, by Bill Clinton’s golfing buddy, Vernon Jordan. A Nexis search reveals that Strauss got described in print as “Mr. Democrat” only 12 times in the eight years after Bill Clinton was elected president (and four of these citations were clearly ironic or derogatory). During the previous five years–that is, during the Bush administration and the tail end of the Reagan administration–Strauss got described in print as “Mr. Democrat” 30 times.

Now that Republicans are about to retake the White House, though, Strauss is back. In the current Washingtonian, Chuck Conconi writes, “Strauss is ready to help fellow Texan George W. Bush find a way to work with Democrats.” Although “Strauss says he never talks about whom he talks to,” somehow Conconi was able to intuit that Strauss “has been in contact with Bush and other people who will try to act as conciliators and facilitators in the coming months, including Sens. John Breaux, and Richard Lugar and former Sens. Howard Baker, John Danforth, and Sam Nunn.” In the Dec. 14 Daily News, Washington bureau chief Thomas M. DeFrank described Strauss as a “Democratic Party elder and certified Washington wise man” as he quoted Strauss saying, “Nobody can govern without a consensus, and you don’t have one.” (Translation: Dubya, you need me!) That same day, in the Dallas Morning News, reporter David Jackson called Strauss an “elder statesman” as he quoted Strauss saying, “The public has handled itself better than the participants, whether they be participants in the media or the political arena. … Now we need to follow their example.” (Translation: Dubya, you need me!) It might be argued that Strauss, who is now an octogenarian, may not feel up to reassuming the mantle of “Mr. Democrat.” But the job of insinuating yourself into the power structure was probably never all that strenuous. As long as he can show up for lunch at the Palm, Strauss should be counted in.