Obituary: Robert Strauss / Versatile politician, former Democratic chairman

Oct. 19, 1918 - March 19, 2014

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Robert Strauss could work with anybody -- Democrats and Republicans, Americans and Soviets, Israelis and Arabs. Playing the game and making the deal made his day.

Of Mr. Strauss' many accomplishments -- earning a fortune in postwar investments, co-founding an international law firm, leading the Democratic Party, running one successful presidential campaign and surviving the loss of another -- being welcome on either side of the political street might have been the achievement he most treasured.

A Strauss specialty was what he called "the art of making things happen instead of just tilting at windmills." A little sign he had kept on his desk put it succinctly: "It CAN be done."

"He is absolutely the most amazing politician," former first lady Barbara Bush wrote of the prominent Democratic powerbroker who died Wednesday at 95. "He is everybody's friend and, if he chooses, could sell you the paper off your own wall."

President Ronald Reagan sought Mr. Strauss' advice when his administration was embroiled in the Iran-Contra affair. President George H.W. Bush turned to him when he needed an ambassador to the Soviet Union to represent American interests as the communist country fell apart -- and when the Russian Federation took its place.

Years earlier, President Jimmy Carter had relied on Mr. Strauss, the son of an immigrant German Jew, as his personal representative during Israeli-Arab peace talks. When Mr. Carter's re-election bid drew opposition even among Democrats, the president brought Mr. Strauss home to make the peace in the Democratic Party.

If anyone could calm an intraparty storm, it was the quick-witted and gregarious Washington insider with a soft Texas drawl who seemed to know everyone who mattered.

"Bob Strauss may have cut his teeth in the brass knuckle and highly partisan political fields of Texas politics," George H.W. Bush said in a statement released Wednesday, "but he counseled several presidents of the United States of both parties -- and like the others, I valued his advice highly."

Testifying at his Senate nomination hearing in 1991, Mr. Strauss pledged a strong voice in dealing with the Soviets. "I may not convince everyone. But they will know where we stand."

During his 15-month tenure as ambassador, he witnessed the fall of Mikhail Gorbachev's communist government and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

More recently, Mr. Strauss was a superdelegate to the 2008 presidential campaign. He remained neutral during the long battle between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Robert S. Strauss was born on Oct. 19, 1918, in Lockhart, Texas. He grew up in Stamford, where his father was a dry goods merchant. His parents were Jewish, but he received no formal religious instruction.

He first dipped into politics while a student at the University of Texas, when he worked on Lyndon B. Johnson's first congressional campaign. After earning his law degree in 1941, he joined the FBI, where he spent the war years as a roaming special agent.


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