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If you like Robert Strauss's story, you might also like:
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Robert Strauss
Robert Strauss
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Robert Strauss Interview (page: 4 / 7)

Presidential Medal of Freedom

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  Robert Strauss

You were in Dallas on the day President Kennedy was killed, and you were very close to John Connally, who was also wounded that day. Could you tell us about that day? Did you participate in the President's trip to Texas?

Robert Strauss Interview Photo
Robert Strauss: To back up a little, John Connally called me from Washington. He called me before he went up, and he said, "Kennedy wants to see me, Bob." When Kennedy called him to Washington, Johnson was Vice President, and Kennedy didn't even tell Johnson that he had called John Connally up to have him plan a trip to Texas. Connally didn't want the President to come to Texas, because he was coming down to do the one thing we needed to do. I was in charge of Connally's fundraising. The Texas people knew that I raised money for him. Connally called from up there before he went back home and said, "Bob, Kennedy is coming to Texas, and he's going to raise money here."

Did Connally think it was going to compete with his fundraising?

Robert Strauss: Connally knew they were coming to raise money.

And he didn't want to compete with the President?

Robert Strauss: Exactly. Furthermore, John Connally wasn't anxious to have Kennedy in the state. He wasn't that popular. Texas was a difficult place, and Connally was in a different mode. He was Johnson's man, not Kennedy's man. The whole thing was a montage of conflicting interests. When we planned the trip, Connally said, "Valenti and Singleton and Albert Thomas," who was a congressman, "will handle the various things in Houston, and you take care of Dallas and get two or three other people involved." He mentioned Cassidy.

So we planned in Dallas a luncheon, this is what the Kennedy people wanted. Bobby Kennedy sent down a woman named Elizabeth Forsling -- I'll never forget her name -- who was a very nice lady, and I liked her very much. Still living, I think, in New York. She was representing Bobby Kennedy and the White House in Dallas, and I was representing the Governor's interest in Dallas, so she and I had a good deal to do with the planning of that event.

If I live to be 110, I'll not forget that when we were planning that trip, two Secret Service fellows were talking to the head of the Chamber of Commerce -- I think it was a fellow named Bob Cullum -- and he said to the two of us, "Now what about the luncheon? What kind of hall would you pick to have it in?" And he was going over the various sites and planning where the audience would sit, and where the head table would be, and whether the President would be above or below, and he was explaining to us, "He needs to be above the crowd." And he asked some question about the planning of that event, where it should be, and I said, " Fellow, I'll tell you, I know a lot of things, I think, but one thing I don't know a damn thing about is presidential security. That, you fellows have to plan." Cullum may have said it first, but together we said that. He and I discussed it later. Thank goodness we both said that we don't know anything about presidential security. But that was the trip, of course, where the President lost his life. I was at the luncheon, waiting for that group to arrive.

I was not involved in the Chamber of Commerce or the Citizens' Council, which is a group of establishment people. I was never much of an establishment fellow in Dallas. That's the reason I got into national politics, because I had political interests, but my political interests were I wanted to be on the City Council representing the business establishment. I didn't want to be a radical on the outside. The trouble is they didn't want me. They didn't need young, up-and-coming Jewish lawyers getting into any leadership role there. And they were pretty effective; I didn't.

When Connally considered running for Governor, I was one of the two people who came to Washington and talked to the fact that we could elect him. I knew that he wanted to be Governor. He had talked to me about trying to be Senator earlier. But along with others, I helped talk John into doing something he was born to do anyway, be in elective office, and that's where I got going out of Dallas. So when we elected him Governor, I came in over the top of the Dallas establishment instead of trying to go through them. I knew I couldn't do that. After John Connally got elected Governor, people were crazy about him. He was so attractive, and he had not gone so far to the right then. He was right in the middle, and I thought it would elect him president. I still think it could have if he had stayed a Democrat.

I vividly remember that he asked me when he got elected Governor -- well, the Governor has no power, but he has appointments, he can appoint you to different things -- and he asked me what I wanted, and I said, "Well, I don't want anything, Governor. I know you don't want to appoint me to the Board of Regents because you have been speaking on the fact that we've got to get rid of cronyism on that board, and I couldn't agree with you more. I think you ought to appoint some people not like me who would be considered your voice there. I share your view, and that's the only thing I would want. I love the University of Texas, and I'd like to be a Regent, but this would be the wrong time," and he wouldn't do it if I had wanted it.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

I said, "There is one thing I want," and he said, "What's that?" I said, "Well, when you start appointing those judges and filling these commissions and when people out of the Dallas establishment come to call on you, just listen to them and say, 'Well, I've got your suggestions now, and I'm certainly going to consider them, and I'll discuss it with Bob Strauss the first chance I get, and you'll hear from him or me." And he started laughing, and he said, "Are you kidding?" And I said, "That's all I want, John. Just say, 'Well, I want to discuss it with Strauss.'" Of course, nothing could have pleased me more, and I was so vain, anyway, about it and annoyed with them for ten years or more of what I thought was neglect or abuse or whatever you'd call it. They really were nice people, they just didn't care for me. It wasn't mutual. I was ready to join the crowd, but the crowd didn't want me, to be very blunt about it. But Connally did that a couple times, and that's all I needed, and I liked it. It made the whole thing worthwhile.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

How did you hear the news that the President and Governor Connally had been shot? Were you at the hall waiting for the Chamber of Commerce crowd?

Robert Strauss: Yes. A fellow with the highway patrol came up. I was sitting with Cliff Cassidy, who was a young businessman there who was deeply involved with Connally and me. I had introduced Connally to Cassidy, and Connally had appointed him head of the Department of Public Safety.

The patrolman came up and said to the two of us, "There has been an accident. There has been a shooting, and we think the President has been hit, and we don't know how serious, and we think Governor Connally may have been hit." And I said, or he said, "Let's go to the hospital," and we left that lunch. Helen was there, and I left her and went to the hospital, and when I got there, Nellie Connally was standing in the hallway, and as I came in, a fellow named Cliff Carter, who was on Johnson's staff, came rushing up to me and said, "Bob, Kennedy's dead. He's dead." He just said, "I can't believe it. He's dead." And he said, "Johnson's president. I can't believe the power..." The whole thing was -- we were in shock.

And he said, "They just rushed Johnson to the airport." And I said, "Where is Mrs. Kennedy?" and he said, "She and Nellie Connally are at such-and-such a place." When I rushed there, Nellie was standing outside of the operating room, leaning against the wall. She had been in a private room, and had just stepped out, and she was sobbing kind of quietly, so I talked with her.

I then called Helen, who had gotten home by then, or shortly thereafter, and I said, "Honey, this is so incredible." I said, "There are mobs of these people, friends of ours and people connected with Kennedy or Johnson, who are wandering around in a daze, just like I am," and I said, "I think I'll just tell them to come to our house tonight. Most of them don't even have rooms. They hadn't planned on staying here, some of them." And she said, "Good." And I said, "Why don't you get 50 or 60 steaks" -- we had an inside grill -- "get about 50 or 60 small strips. And be sure you have a lot of booze, we're going to need it." And I guess we had an Irish wake in a Jewish home that night, because a lot of the press came by, and a lot of Johnson's and some of Kennedy's friends came by, and our friends, people from around the state who were in town and heard about it word-of-mouth. I told people, "Just tell everybody our house will be open." And we must have had 100 people coming and going, maybe 150, that night, and it was a tremendous, a terribly tremendous night.

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