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

Presidential Medal of Freedom

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  Robert Strauss

Since leaving office, Jimmy Carter seems to have grown in stature. Has it surprised you to see what a statesman he has become?

Robert Strauss: I told Carter, after he got beat, that he was going into the greatest job in the world, when he learned how to do it properly, the most marvelous job, and it was perfect for him, and he looked at me as if I was out of my mind. I said, "Being a young ex-president who cares about the country and wants to make a difference, you have the greatest opportunity anybody could have." He has come to realize that, that I was right, and he enjoys it. Interestingly, when he got the Nobel Peace Prize -- I called his home. I waited until 7:00. I had heard on the radio at 6:00 that they had called him at 4:30, so I thought maybe he had gone back to sleep. And I called there at 7:00 or quarter to 7:00, down in that little town he lives in, and Rosalynn answered the phone. I said, "Rosalynn, could I speak to the President? It's just wonderful," I said. She said, "It is wonderful." And I said, "Could I speak to him, or is he just too tired?" She said, "Bob, he's out doing something." I said, "Doing what?" She said, "I don't know. He said he had some things he wanted to get done this morning." So he went about his business after he got that call.

Doing errands?

Robert Strauss: Doing errands, some things he had to get done. That was Jimmy Carter, both his strength and his weakness, I guess. But he is, people acknowledge, the greatest living ex-president, and always has been. Interestingly, he and Gerry Ford have become so close, they are really devoted friends, not just casual friends.

You also had a close relationship to the Reagans, which might surprise people because of your long association with the Democratic Party.

Robert Strauss Interview Photo
Robert Strauss: Yes. You'll remember we had the Iran Contra controversy of trading arms for hostages. One day in the middle of Ronald Reagan's second term I got a call from Mike Deaver, and he said, "The Reagans would like you to come up and talk to them tonight about the difficulties the President's having, growing out of Iran Contra and what you think of it, and what he ought to do." And I said, "Well Deaver, do they want to hear the truth or not, because I'm not interested in going up there." As a matter of fact, I told him a story that I've told you earlier about telling Lyndon Johnson everything I thought he wanted to hear, not one word of which I believed, and I learned my lesson on that. And he said, "Well, Mrs. Reagan wants him to hear the truth, and she thinks he's not hearing it. She thinks you'll tell him the truth. You know the truth and you'll tell him. She doesn't know anybody else who will, because they're all telling him what they want him to hear and what he wants to hear, that there's nothing to these stories."

People were saying his Chief of Staff, Donald Regan was part of the problem, but he didn't want to fire him. They were close weren't they?

Robert Strauss: They were very close. He liked Don Regan, and Don Regan was his Chief of Staff, of course. So...

I went up there that night and met Deaver, and we went through the tunnel. We met in the Treasury Department, in Jim Baker's office, because they didn't want (the press) to see me coming into the White House. And another gentleman was along who was a prominent Republican. It is unimportant his name now, but he had been a very important Republican and was close to Don Regan and the Reagans. So they had the two of us up. I didn't expect anybody else to be there, but we got upstairs and walked through that long tunnel, as I said, which is still outfitted, I guess, like from World War II. It still has bunks on the wall, and it looks like food and canned things there and life preservers, all kinds of communications stuff. And you go through about four doublelocked doors, and the Secret Service and I don't know what else, military people, let you through those doors. It's impressive. Well, I got up there, and it was just Deaver and the President and Mrs. Reagan and this other person and me.

And this was in their bedroom?

Robert Strauss: It was in their sitting room, right off their bedroom, in the small living quarters the President has up there. Not so small, but not very spacious, either. We got into this discussion, and the President started off by -- it took him about 20 minutes to tell his side of that and how there was nothing to these stories and how wrong they were. And he turned to this other fellow and said, "I trust you agree?" and he said, "Mr. President, I sure do. I think the press is blowing this all up. Eisenhower had his U2 problems, and they blew over, and Truman had his scandal problems, and they blew over, and this will blow over. All you need to do is hold your fire and hang in there." And the President turned to me and said, "I trust you agree, Bob?" I said, "As a matter of fact, I couldn't disagree more." After gulping a couple times, I said -- I told that story about the Lyndon Johnson experience -- and I said, "Before I came up here tonight, I asked Deaver if he wanted to hear the truth. The truth of the matter was Deaver's answer to me was..." -- I hadn't told it before -- "He said, 'She wants him to hear it. I don't know whether he wants to hear it or not, but she wants him to hear the truth.'"

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Robert Strauss Interview Photo
I told him that Don Regan was a fine man and a smart man, but he wasn't made for that job. The Hill didn't like him very much, and he had a sort of arrogance to him, because he was smarter than most people, and stronger. He had become head of Merrill Lynch, and that wasn't accidental; it was because he was a talented man. But he was getting bad information, and he had people like Oliver North around him, and the whole thing was a mess. I told the President that, and we had a long, long discussion, and he said, "Well, I don't expect to let the press pick my Chief of Staff," and he asked what I would do. I said, "I would get somebody in there," and I named two or three people, including Howard Baker and a fellow named Bill Brock, and I said, "These people have credibility, and the Hill likes them." And I said, "Howard Baker would make a great Chief of Staff." As a matter of fact, Howard Baker would have made a great president. I might add, Senator Howard Baker is now Bush's appointee as our Ambassador to Japan, and is serving in Tokyo right now. Anyway...

Something came up, and I was, I guess, strong in my answer again, and the President heard enough. He said, "Well, I think we've had enough of this," and in a nice, gentlemanly way -- as I have said before, in a nice way as only Ronald Reagan can do, and in a gentlemanly way -- he threw my ass out of the White House. That's kind of a crude way of putting it, but it's also fairly expressive of what happened. And I got home and was having a strong drink with my wife and telling her what took place, as I always did, and we went to bed and went to sleep -- it was late. And I was just getting ready to go sleep, about to fall asleep, and the phone rang, and it was Nancy Reagan. She called and said, "Bob, that was very brave tonight," and I said, "Well, yes, thank you. It was probably very foolish." She said, "No. It was something that needed to be done and had to be done." And she very graciously said, "I don't know anybody but you that would have done it and done it as well." She said, "Ronnie is very mad at us," and I said, "Well, I can understand why he's made at you -- you set him up, and I guess I'm the messenger, so that's who you kill." And she laughed and said, "Ronnie doesn't stay mad, and he was mad tonight, and he showed it. Didn't eat his dinner and didn't talk to me and went to bed. That gave me a chance to call and tell you how much I appreciate it and that Ronnie will not be mad tomorrow." And she said, "As a matter of fact, Bob, he heard every word you said, and I know Ronnie, and in the next day or two, he'll get rid of Don Regan, which is what he has to do." And I laughed, and a couple days later, I was out West somewhere, getting ready to make a speech, and the phone rang, and it was the White House. It was Nancy Reagan, who said, "Bob, I just want you to know that Ronnie's going to fire Don Regan tomorrow." And I said, "Well, I know you're glad, and I think it's a thing he has to do, as distasteful as you find it." And she said, "Well, I know it's going to leak today. That's the reason I called you." And I laughed and said, "Yes, you do know it's going to leak," and she said, "Yes, I think it's going to leak." But she said, "This had to be done."

And that became a friendship, and we became very close. I talk to her regularly, and Mike Deaver, who is a good friend of mine, is one of her close advisors.

What do the words "the American Dream" mean to you?

Robert Strauss: Oh, I don't know what an "American Dream" is.

I think that what we have to strive for is the kind of America that we almost have, and we are getting closer every year, and that is an America that has the kind of opportunity and climate that everybody can dream. It's hard to believe you can expect some of these poor people who are born into poverty and into homes with no parent, no father, no mother, alcohol, drugs -- you can't expect those people to have dreams. But I have found that everyone in this country who has an opportunity does have their own individual dream. Maybe it's just for a job that pays a good wage, and that's a very good dream for some people. For other people, it's the presidency, or great wealth, a great invention. But as long as we have the kind of climate where people can dream, then they will dream, and a lot of those dreams will come true. But an awful lot of people in this country today cannot have that kind of dream, because it would be too foolish. We're moving in the right direction, and I am always an optimist, and I am very high on that climate becoming the climate that permeates this country all the way across, not just for those of us who have been more blessed.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

Do you ever commune with your mom's spirit and say, "Mom, I'm advising presidents?"

Robert Strauss: No, I don't do that, but I have always regretted that she couldn't live to see this. Maybe she is seeing it from somewhere else. I hope so. I'm not sure I believe she is, but I'm not convinced that she absolutely isn't.

You certainly fulfilled her wildest American Dream.

Thank you.

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