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Ex-Democratic Chairman Robert Strauss dies at 95

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  • Robert Strauss, a former chairman of the Democratic Party and an ambassador to the Soviet Union, has died. Strauss' law firm confirmed his death Wednesday, March 19, 2014, at age 95.

      Robert Strauss, a former chairman of the Democratic Party and an ambassador to the Soviet Union, has died. Strauss' law firm confirmed his death Wednesday, March 19, 2014, at age 95.
    Associated Press file photo, 1991

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Bob 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 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.

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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 power broker who died Wednesday at his home in Washington at 95. "He is everybody's friend and, if he chooses, could sell you the paper off your own wall."

President Ronald Reagan sought 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 Strauss, the son of an immigrant German Jew, as his personal representative during Israeli-Arab peace talks. When Carter's re-election bid drew opposition even among Democrats, the president brought 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 was one of the greatest leaders the Democratic Party ever had," President Barack Obama said in a statement Wednesday night, "yet presidents of both parties relied on his advice, his instincts and his passion for public service -- not to mention his well-honed sense of humor."

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

For years Strauss moved easily in Washington's political, business and social circles. Mixing outlandish boasts with a self-deprecating humor, he regularly told listeners: "It ain't braggin' if you've done it."

Not everyone was so certain. When Strauss' appointment to represent the U.S. in the Soviet Union was criticized on grounds that he lacked the geopolitical background required for such a sensitive posting, he said: "While I'm no expert on these things, I'm an expert on people."

Testifying at his Senate nomination hearing in 1991, 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, Strauss witnessed the fall of Mikhail Gorbachev's communist government and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Strauss relinquished his ambassadorial post to return to Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, the powerhouse law firm he co-founded in 1945 in Dallas. He never established the type of relationship with President Bill Clinton that he enjoyed with previous presidents, attributing the distance from his fellow Democrat to a difference in age.

More recently, Strauss was a superdelegate to the 2008 presidential campaign. He remained neutral during the long battle between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. In a May 2008 essay in The Washington Post, he said each one had "waged brilliant campaigns. ... America would be in good hands if either became president."

The University of Texas' school of international security and law in Austin bears Strauss' name. He also has held the Lloyd Bentsen chair at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at UT.

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.

Possessed of a deft financial touch, the young Strauss purchased radio stations and real estate, parlaying his investments into a multimillion-dollar portfolio by the time he was 45.

His first major involvement in politics was as one of the top fundraisers for the 1962 gubernatorial campaign of his close friend John Connally, whom he met at college in the late 1930s, when Connally was student body president.

Connally first appointed Strauss to the Democratic National Committee in 1968. A year later, Strauss opened a branch of his Dallas law firm in the nation's capital.

A master in the art of backroom deal making, Strauss accomplished a major feat in 1968, when he succeeded in getting sworn enemies Connally, then governor, and Sen. Ralph Yarborough to campaign together for the national Democratic ticket.

Strauss' prodigious talent for campaign fundraising made him an influential member of the DNC. During his tenure as the party treasurer, he cut the debt in half. He later moved into the DNC chairmanship, a perch he used to help engineer Carter's 1976 election.

Strauss received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, in 1981.

Strauss' wife since 1941, Helen Jacobs Strauss, often described as his closest confidant, died in 2006. Three children survive him.

His political apex came during the Carter years, where he was known as the president's "Mr. Fixit." Carter called on the skilled negotiator to serve as U.S. trade representative, his point man on inflation and as a special envoy to the Middle East.

In later years, however, the conservative Strauss found himself outside the inner councils of a Democratic Party that had become far more liberal than he. Friends and critics alike pointed to Strauss' unerring ability to remain close to whoever was in power, regardless of their politics.

After Carter's defeat in 1980, the departing president quipped: "Bob Strauss is a very loyal friend. He waited a whole week after the election before he had dinner with Ronald Reagan."

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