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If you like Robert Strauss's story, you might also like:
George H.W. Bush,
Jimmy Carter,
Mikhail Gorbachev,
George Mitchell,
Paul H. Nitze,
Shimon Peres,
Alan Simpson
and Andrew Young

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Strauss Center
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U.S.-Russia Council


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Robert Strauss
Robert Strauss
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Robert Strauss Interview (page: 5 / 7)

Presidential Medal of Freedom

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  Robert Strauss

How did Lyndon Johnson handle the death of the President, this shocking development?

Robert Strauss: He called my law partner, Irving Goldberg, who was very close to Johnson and Mrs. Johnson. As a matter of fact, I think he was their lawyer, and Irving had been on his staff for a while. Johnson called him from the plane, and he asked Irv, "What do I do about being sworn in? Should I do it here or there or wait until I get to Washington?" And Irv was wise enough to say, "You don't need to be sworn in. You are president, but you ought to be sworn in in a very public way, where the world will see you, see the power changing, because they need to know there is continuity here." And Johnson said, "I agree. Who should do it?" And Irv said, "I'll get Barefoot." Barefoot Sanders had an Indian name, but he had also just been appointed U.S. Attorney by Johnson, "He'll locate Judge Sarah Hughes," who was also a Johnson appointee. Luckily, they found the right people, and that's how that all happened. Johnson said to him, "You get out here for this swearing in," but when he got to the airport they said, "Oh, you can't go in there." Irv was too shy, and he didn't throw his weight around or say, "Call the plane, you'll find out." So he just stayed out and went on back home. That's the story. A day I'll never forget.

That also changed the dimension of my career to some extent. My career has been a good one. It hasn't been any meteoric rise to the top, but it has been a constant rise, one I am proud of and pleased about and found it terribly rewarding every day. I have been blessed with the ability to have relationships on both sides of the aisle. I have been blessed to hold important responsibilities for both parties. I have been blessed with a family that is very supportive, and a wife who was interested in music and art until she had the bad break of running into me, and found out she had better get interested in politics and public life because that was my interest. So we found our lives going in that direction, and she has been very, very good at it and with me everywhere, as has Vera Murray. She has been with me 32 or 33 years. My secretary here has been with me 25 years, and the one in Dallas, Marie Phelps, has been with me 35 years, maybe more. I never leave people, and they never leave me. I don't try to grade up to get better. My people are good, and they get better, and they don't grade up and leave me to get something better. So it's a functional group of people, just as my family is functional.

Tell us more about Lyndon Johnson. He had a famous temper, I understand.

Robert Strauss Interview Photo
Robert Strauss: Yes, he had a hell of a temper, but he also had the ability to be very thoughtful and very nice. Lyndon Johnson never saw me as a close advisor. If Lyndon Johnson had ten or 12 people to an important meeting to help him make a political decision, I would not have been in that group of 10 or 12. Had he had 25 people in, I would have made that cut probably. I was never closer than that to Lyndon Johnson, but people always assumed I was.

I was a fellow who was active in politics, from Texas, and known to be a Johnson man. The truth of the matter is, I was close to John Connally, who was our Governor, and he was Johnson's man. He had worked for him and with him, and Johnson relied on him for everything. So if I was going to reach Johnson, the best way to do it would be to have Connally reach him for me. I didn't have to reach him for anything, but that was my relationship.

Johnson asked me on one occasion when I was at the White House. He had me up to his residence in the White House, called my wife and I up there, called us to town. What had happened was they called and said, "The President wants to see you tomorrow morning in his bedroom at 7:30," and I said, "Well, I can't go then. It's Helen's 50th birthday tomorrow. I'll come the next day." And he said fine and said, "I'll tell the boss." So he came back on the phone about five minutes later and said, "The boss says he wants to see you tomorrow morning around 7:30 in his bedroom, and bring Helen with you. And he said to tell you to have her bring an evening dress she can wear in the evening, and you bring a tux, because..." this fellow said, "...there are things going on up here. There's a lot of activity, and apparently the President may include you and Helen in it." And I said fine, so we trooped up here, and when I got up there, Lyndon Johnson talked to me about what was going wrong with the Hubert Humphrey campaign in Texas and what I ought to do about it. Sort of "or else!" Lyndon Johnson intimidated me like no one ever had before him and no one since. I found him the most intimidating human being I had ever been around. He had my number, and he knew it and I knew it, so that's a bad combination. But I was devoted to him, with all his warts, just like everyone who he touched was. I think he was the most powerful man in whose company I have been. Everyone had that same impression. He would overpower you with his personality and his ability. He was not always right, but he was always effective.

I don't know if you've read any of the Robert Caro books, but he was an amazing human being, and they tell a lot about him. When I was up there in his bedroom, as we were finishing our talk about the Humphrey campaign, he said to me, "Bob, what do you think about my Asia policy?" He was talking about Vietnam. That was the height of the war, which ran him out of office, you will recall.

When did this happen?

Robert Strauss: It was October 8th, 1968. I remember it so well, because Helen's 50th birthday was the 9th.

I told him everything I thought he wanted to hear, not one word of which did I really believe, and I felt so dirty when I got through, I swore I'd never do anything like that again if the Lord would ever forgive me. If the President was ever dumb enough to ask my advice, I'd do better.

What do you think prompted you to tell him what he wanted to hear about Vietnam?

Robert Strauss: I think I was intimidated, and I didn't tell him what he found unappealing. After I left his bedroom and was telling Helen about it -- my wife, who I've been married to over 60 years, we're very close, we are inseparable -- I said to her an hour after I left the bedroom, I felt better that I didn't do any -- I realized I didn't do any harm, because Lyndon Johnson didn't really give a damn about what I thought. He asked me that question because he pretty well knew I'd tell him what he wanted to hear, I think. So I don't think I ever had any influence on a decision of Lyndon Johnson's in my life. I don't kid myself about that. But that's part of maturing and part of learning and part of growing up. I have always been sort of ashamed of that, but I feel better when I tell it publicly, and I have no hesitancy in doing so, because after that, a number of presidents have sought my advice. Some of the advice is good and some of it not so good, and some they took and some they didn't take, but I'm just vain enough -- and I'm honest enough to admit my vanity -- that I like the idea that people say Bob Strauss is a wise man or a fellow who counsels presidents. Well, of course, both of those are overstated, but I don't spend any time correcting people.

Robert Strauss Interview Photo
I don't object to the impression, and I like the fact that my children and grandchildren read it and hear it, and to a substantial extent, believe it. I have been blessed with a very functional family. Too many families are dysfunctional today. I know I've done something right in my life and that Helen has, because we have a reasonably good-size family, and it's the most functional damn family in the world, to stray from the subject.

How many children?

Robert Strauss: Three children and seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. When my grandchildren got to be teenagers and older, and they would come by for a beer with me when I was trying to rest at night, I used to say, "Don't you have any home? Doesn't anybody ever ask you for a date? Why don't you quit hanging around here?" And they would laugh, and I would laugh. It's a great relationship.

Did any of them go into politics?

Robert Strauss: No, no. Nobody in my family went into politics, although I have a grandson who is called Rob Strauss, and I think he will. He's fooled around in politics, and he's pretty good at it. I think he'll end up doing something politically; I hope so. I think politics needs nice people, decent people, and he is that. He is also sensible enough to not get too cynical over the weaknesses.

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This page last revised on Sep 28, 2010 11:13 EDT
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