Robert Strauss, former DNC chairman and presidential adviser, died on Wednesday at the age of 95. In this caustic 1988 TRB column, Michael Kinsley asked how this shallow figure became Washington's elder statesman.
"Yes, that was Mr. Democrat, Robert Strauss, having a quiet lunch yesterday at the Jockey Club with First Lady Nancy Reagan. ..." —Washington Post
Did I miss the primary where they elected Bob Strauss Mr. Democrat? Can we petition for a recall? Are Democrats allowed to vote, or is it entirely up to the likes of William Buckley and George Will?
Buckley selected Strauss as his Democratic co-questioner in last year's candidate debates. Will has touted Strauss twice for president and once for secretary of state in the past few months.
When he's not being called "Mr. Democrat," Strauss, aged 69, is labeled an "elder statesman" or "wise man." In fact, he's "the Capital's Leading Wise Man," according to the headline on a recent New York Times puffer that was worth a pile to his influence-peddling operation. Strauss, oozed the Times, is "a senior statesman who bridges partisan rivalry and ideological factionalism. The capital needs such elders, people known for their straight talk and sound advice."
Strauss is being touted, not least by Strauss, as the potential broker of a deadlocked Democratic nomination fight. Even in the course of dismissing that idea, Albert Hunt of the Wall Street Journal says that the next Democratic president would "be a fool not to put Mr. Strauss in his Cabinet."
Why? Wherein, exactly, lies the greatness of Robert Strauss? Is it his devotion to liberal values? His deep insight into the issues facing our nation? Hardly. Strauss's rare public remarks on public issues are embarrassingly banal. For depth and passion, they make his pal Bob Dole (with whom he shares a Florida winter retreat) seem like Henry Kissinger. Writing on trade recently in the Post, Strauss opined; "The American people want something done about it. ... There is no time like the present to get the job done, and the key players all know it. ... There is nothing to prevent a good, sound bill from being worked out ..." etc… etc. This is best translated as: "Goddammit, I want Bob Strauss's name in the paper tomorrow."
Strauss is not the sort to maintain a principled disagreement with anyone. I was astonished to read him quoted in the Times a few months ago saying that Ann Lewis, a far-left Democratic activist, was unfit to be party chairman. Not that he doesn't think this—he surely does—but why would he say it? Sure enough, the next day's paper carried an "Editor's Note" explaining that the quotation from Strauss "omitted the context" and should have added, "I think she is one of the very credible and sensible political voices in this town and country." It's a testament to Strauss's clout that he got the Times to print such a ridiculous correction, and a hint of how he got that clout that he wanted one.
Ordinarily, of course, Strauss's splendid ideological agnosticism tilts him to the right, not the left. It's not that Strauss has conservative beliefs. He has no beliefs, except for his cardinal principle that all the key players ought to sit down and work this sucker out, goddammit.
So what's the secret? Is it his record of devoted public service? Strauss was a successful fund-raiser and party chairman in the early 1970s. During the Carter years he built up his resume on the George Bush model: a few months each as Special Trade Representative, President's Counselor on Inflation, Middle Fast negotiator, and chairman of the re-election campaign. His achievements in any of these posts were not remarkable (or even, regarding inflation and the Middle East, noticeable). But they got him the title of ambassador and lots of new clients when he returned to his law firm in 1981. Since then the firm has become one of Washington's largest and most profitable.
But, as the Times says, "His real influence in Washington derives not from his past titles, but from the force of his personality and the quality of his judgment." "Judgment" has become the preferred euphemism these days for what Washington fixers offer, now that Michael Deaver (another Strauss pal) has discredited the formerly favored "access."
The idea that someone like Strauss is a great fount of "judgment" is about one-third humbug directed at potential critics, about one-third humbug directed at his customers themselves—business clients, presidents, journalists—and about one-third true. But it's judgment of a particular kind. As Carter's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, put it in his memoir: "It was always helpful for me to hear what Strauss was saying, because I knew that his 'ideas' were more accurately an amalgam of the collective thoughts and opinions of the Washington political and media establishments." What Strauss really sells to outsider presidents like Carter and Reagan (payment in ego) and to corporate clients (payment in cash) is Washington's blessing.
What he sells to journalists is more subtle. Strauss "gives good quote," as they say, and leaks when he's got something to leak. But it's not as a source that reporters value Strauss. They generally know blarney when they hear it. Jordan describes Strauss's technique of inventing a reason to talk to Carter, however briefly, so he could lunch out on, "As I was saying to the president..." What seduces journalists into Strauss's conspiracy of hype is more Strauss's mastery of the peculiar Washington style of flattery-by-insult ("How the hell are you, you old pigfucker?"); his genuine interest in their view of things (always a sure sign of wisdom in others), which he can recycle; in short, his warm embrace—his reassurance that there is a Washington establishment and they're in it.
Virtually everyone in Washington recognizes that Bob Strauss is 99 percent hot air, yet they all maintain this "elder statesman" and "Mr. Democrat" routine like some sort of elaborate prank on the rest of the world. Is it unsporting not to play along? I don't think so. It's a little too convenient for conservatives and Republicans that "Mr. Democrat" should be a man so obviously more interested in being seen as a friend of the president than in who the president happens to be. It’s an insult to the Democratic Party—partly self-inflicted, to be sure—that its symbolic head should be a man whose political influence is out for hire to the highest bidder. And it’s a telling comment on the Washington establishment that so laughably shallow a figure should be considered one of its “wise men.”
Of course Strauss may be no different from the Democratic elder statesmen of the past. Someone like Clark Clifford worked harder to keep a patina of "law office" on his lobbying business, and came on like a Brahmin, in contrast to Strauss's po'boy routine. But basically the scam was the same.
In fact, every great capital probably has a Mr. Fixit, a self-promoting middle-man who is a friend of all sides no matter how mutually opposed they may be. In Tehran, when you're in need of "judgment," you look up the elder statesman and wise man Manucher Ghorbanifar. He doesn't have much in common, spiritually, with the ruling ayatollahs. They let him make his millions and keep his body parts in one place because he's useful to them. But at least no one calls him "Mr. Shiite."