Death of an Old Fox

Posted: Apr 15, 2014 12:01 AM
Death of an Old Fox

Robert Strauss was one of those figures who belonged to the past long before he passed, a news-maker who hadn't made the news in years. But by the time his obituary appeared the other day -- he was 95 at his death -- he had been involved to one prominent degree or another in just about every presidential administration from Lyndon Johnson's to the first George Bush's.

That's how trusted and universally useful Bob Strauss' political advice, numerous contacts and negotiating skills came to be, not to mention his just plain Texas savvy. To which he added an undiluted good will and sheer zest for life. A reporter asked him in 1993, when he was already approaching old age, whether there was anything he regretted. His reply was a concise summation of his whole attitude toward politics, and not just politics: "No, I don't have any regrets about anything in my life. I like the whole damn deal." No wonder nobody could help liking him. And coming to depend on him.

After the debacle that was George McGovern's thoroughly incompetent presidential campaign in 1972, which resulted in the largest landslide in American history -- for Richard Nixon -- the Democrats naturally turned to Bob Strauss, the kind of sage counselor you naturally call on when you're in trouble, deep trouble. Sure enough, Bob Strauss got his party out of the pit its "reformers" had dug for it.

As national chairman of the party, he engineered a comeback that brought its tough city bosses and airy amateurs together, the party out of debt, and resulted in a net gain of seven senators, six governors, 48 members of the House and one (1) new president, a fella out of Georgia named Jimmy Carter.

Never mind that Mr. Carter promptly proved the reincarnation of poor George McGovern -- but that was scarcely Bob Strauss' fault. He elected candidates; he never promised to educate them.

Bob Strauss was a Democratic partisan, but that didn't keep him from achieving bipartisan success, for with him it was the country's interest, not either party's, that came first. It was Bob Strauss whom Nancy Reagan turned to when somebody needed to tell her Ronnie that this Iran-Contra mess was getting out of hand and would bring him down if he didn't wake up and face it. He did. "Mistakes were made," Reagan confessed, various bumblers were dumped, and that scandal turned out to be only an episode in a stellar presidency, not the end of it. Nancy's judgment always was under-rated.

It was Bob Strauss whom Jimmy Carter sent to feel out the unlikely possibility of peace talks at Camp David between Egypt and Israel, and sure enough they materialized. Later it would be Bob Strauss whom George H.W. Bush dispatched as our first ambassador to a post-Soviet Russia. It was the perfect choice, for by that time Mr. Strauss had become an expert in damage control. When a ruin collapsed, he was the man you called on to keep all the debris contained, and not falling on innocent bystanders.

When his obituary appeared in the paper, I called my son, and asked if he had ever heard of Bob Strauss (political junkie that he unfortunately is, he had) and whether he knew that Mr. Strauss had been a friend, or at least an acquaintance, of his grandfather, the late Robert E. Levy of Waco, Texas, and, no, he hadn't known that. Only later did it occur to me that knowing Bob Strauss was really no great distinction. Just about everybody in Texas did. And he'd probably collected contributions from half of 'em. For any number of causes, not just political ones.

How sum up Bob Strauss? Long ago the Archaic lyric poet Archilochus wrote of two species of animals, including political animals: "The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing." The fox knows many things because he sticks his nose into everything, always sniffing the air, always on the lookout for what he can find, for opportunity, even cooperation. The hedgehog knows one big thing because he sticks to it. There are various names for that latter trait -- conviction, for example, or a belief in First Principles, in the Permanent Things.

Centuries later, in one of his eloquent essays, Isaiah Berlin would popularize old Archilochus' phrase, for it is ever useful, like so much of the classics. Robert Schwarz Strauss out of little Lockhart, Texas, not far from Austin, was definitely an example of the fox species. He was a partisan Democrat, no doubt about that, for his Texas was the one before it had a two-party system, but he was bipartisan in his friends and his devotion to the national interest.

Or as Jim Wright, another Texan, the former and slightly tarnished speaker of the House, who had to resign after a scandal of his own, once put it in a toast to Bob Strauss at a private dinner: "It's an honor to have with us a close friend of the next president of the United States -- whoever the hell he may be."

The ideal politician is surely a combination of the best qualities of both fox and hedgehog, nimble but also steadfast. But that ideal combination in a leader is rare, if not unique. (The only name that comes to mind offhand is A. Lincoln of Springfield, Ill.) Such a paragon would certainly stand out among our current leaders in this age of mediocrity. Like the Obamas and Kerrys and Clintons husband or wife, failed foxes all, and the Ted Cruzes and Rand Pauls, blind hedgehogs whose one thing they know is how to lose a futile fight, usually against necessity and the modern world. Bob Strauss was the fox of foxes, but where is his like now?

There are other figures in American political history who served a succession of presidents, but they did it in public office, like Henry Stimson and, just recently, Robert Gates, and though they were public servants of the first caliber, they were not great intermediaries, negotiators, or, yes, fixers. Bob Strauss hated that word, fixer, with its connotations of corruption, but there are fixers and there are fixers, and he was the best kind: someone who sees something broken or about to be, and fixes it. Bob Strauss made a career of it, indeed a life, and had a marvelous time doing it. Whether he was joking or butting heads at the time, cussin' or cuddlin', he was always making a good deal -- for all.