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Robert Strauss

Biography: Robert Strauss
Presidential Medal of Freedom

Robert Strauss Date of birth: October 19, 1918
Robert Strauss Date of death: March 19, 2014

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Robert Schwarz Strauss was born in Lockhart, Texas, south of Austin. When he was a year old, his family moved to the small town of Hamlin, north of Abilene, and later to the slightly larger nearby town of Stamford. Robert Strauss's father, who had immigrated to the United States from Germany as a young man, opened a small general store in Stamford. Although both of Strauss's parents were Jewish, in the small Texas towns where he was raised there were no synagogues, and he received no formal religious instruction. From an early age he was an outgoing, gregarious person, and his mother soon predicted that he would find a career in politics or diplomacy.

In his sophomore year at the University of Texas in Austin, Strauss campaigned for a state assembly candidate and was rewarded with a part-time job as a Committee Clerk in the state legislature. While still an undergraduate, he volunteered for Lyndon Johnson's first congressional campaign. In law school at the University of Texas, he met another student who would have a large impact on his career, John B. Connally. After completing his law degree, Strauss was hired as a special agent by the FBI, and served in the FBI throughout World War II. At the end of the war, he settled in Dallas, where he and a fellow FBI agent, Richard A. Gump, founded their own law firm. This firm, originally known as Gump and Strauss, would eventually grow into the international mega-firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.

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Still interested in a political career, Strauss initially sought to ingratiate himself with the Dallas business establishment but was shunned as an outsider. He and his wife, Helen, found a more comfortable niche participating in numerous charities and community activities, and Strauss became a prodigious fundraiser for the Democratic Party. By the 1950s, Strauss's law school friend, John Connally, was serving on the staff of Lyndon Johnson, who soon became Senate Majority Leader. Connally had hitched his wagon to Lyndon Johnson's star, and Strauss hitched his to Connally's.

When John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were elected President and Vice President of the United States in 1960, Connally, a former naval officer, was appointed Secretary of the Navy. Within a year, at Strauss's urging, Connally returned to Texas to run for governor. At the time, the Republican Party had no significant presence in Texas, but Connally faced stiff opposition in the Democratic primary. Strauss's skill as a campaign adviser and fund-raiser was a crucial factor in Connally's narrow victory. Having secured the Democratic nomination, Connally easily won the general election. Connally's election finally brought Strauss the access to the Dallas business establishment he had long sought. Governor Connally appointed Strauss to the Texas Banking Commission, and Strauss's law firm grew and prospered.

The world of Texas politics was turned upside down, along with the rest of the country, by the events of November 1963. Governor Connally and his wife Nellie were riding in the limousine with President Kennedy in Dallas when the President was fatally shot. Governor Connally was severely wounded by the assassin's bullets, but soon recovered. Connally and Strauss's mentor and patron, Lyndon Johnson, was now President of the United States. Although Strauss did not regard himself as part of the President's inner circle of political advisers, Connally certainly was, and Robert Strauss's connection to Connally brought him closer to the President.

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In Texas, Governor Connally was finding himself at odds with the more liberal wing of his own party, while on the national stage, Democrats were becoming bitterly divided over the Vietnam War. President Johnson solicited Robert Strauss's advice on the issue. Strauss feared that continued involvement in the war was a mistake that was endangering Johnson's presidency, but he felt too intimidated by the imposing Johnson to share his true feelings. Strauss immediately regretted withholding his true opinion from the President; he resolved that if any President ever sought his advice again, he would tell him the truth, no matter what the President wanted to hear.

The election of 1968 brought the Republican Richard Nixon to power and left the Democratic Party deeply divided. Strauss had long expected that his friend John Connally would one day run for president, and hoped that he would seek the Democratic nomination in the next election. Strauss opened a Washington office for his law firm and became Treasurer of the Democratic Party in 1971, but the same year, Connally accepted an invitation from President Nixon to serve as Secretary of the Treasury. In 1972, the Democrats nominated George McGovern, while Connally supported Nixon. McGovern and the Democrats suffered a crushing defeat, losing in 49 of the 50 states.

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In the wake of this defeat, Robert Strauss was elected Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Just as Strauss faced the intimidating task of rallying the demoralized Democrats, his old friend, John Connally, made his final break with the party and joined the Republicans. Connally had made a risky political calculation. President Nixon's second term soon became consumed with the Watergate scandal. When Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned, Connally's friends believed that the embattled Nixon would name Connally Vice President, but Nixon named House Minority leader Gerald Ford instead. When Nixon resigned in 1974, Ford became President and John Connally's political fortunes began a precipitous descent.

Although emboldened by their success in the Congressional elections of 1974, the Democrats had no obvious front-runner for the presidential nomination in 1976. While remaining studiously neutral in the struggle for the nomination, Robert Strauss carefully rebuilt the party's finances and planned a tightly disciplined national convention in New York City to erase memories of the chaotic gatherings of 1968 and 1972. By the time the Democrats met at Madison Square Garden, the nomination had been secured by an unexpected candidate, former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.

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Strauss expertly stage managed the convention. At the 1972 convention, party infighting had delayed candidate McGovern's acceptance speech until late at night, when the television audience had gone to sleep. Strauss made sure that Carter's acceptance speech ran in prime time, and the convention ended with a memorable tableau: the leaders of the party's opposing wings, conservative George Wallace and liberal George McGovern, flanking candidate Carter with clasped hands upraised. Important party figures such as Chicago Mayor Daley and AFL-CIO chief George Meany, who had distanced themselves from McGovern's candidacy in 1972, were at center stage once again. The Democrats entered the fall campaign united for the first time in years. Credit for this accomplishment was awarded to the party's chairman, Robert Strauss, and candidate Carter quickly asked Strauss to chair his election campaign as well. The national election was closely contested, but Carter emerged victorious and Strauss was acclaimed as a political kingmaker.

After years away from his law practice, Strauss was reluctant to serve in any of the highly bureaucratized departments of the federal government. Instead, President Carter named Strauss as U.S. Trade Representative. The position enjoyed cabinet level status, while allowing Strauss to apply his considerable negotiating skills to America's troubled relations with its trading partners. As Trade Representative, Strauss successfully completed the Tokyo Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations, and secured the agreement's ratification by Congress in the Trade Act of 1979.

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From this success, President Carter asked Strauss to undertake an even more challenging task, as his Personal Representative to the Mideast Peace Negotiations. Carter's previous efforts had already resulted in a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, and the President hoped Strauss would be able to build on this success. The handshake of Israeli Prime Minister Begin and Egyptian President Sadat on the White House lawn was a sunlit high point of the Carter presidency, but dark clouds were gathering on the horizon. Revolution in Iran led to the seizure of American diplomats as hostages, a crisis that dominated the last year of Carter's term.

In 1980, Strauss's old friend John Connally finally made a run for the presidency. He entered the Republican primaries as a hard-core conservative, but found himself running at the back of the pack while Ronald Reagan emerged as the front-runner. Robert Strauss chaired President Carter's campaign committee once again in 1980, but President Carter did not win re-election. Before leaving office, President Carter awarded Robert Strauss the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. Strauss returned to his law firm's thriving Washington office. His experience as Trade Representative made him a sought-after expert on international trade matters.

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Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan, was to face difficulties of his own. His efforts to resolve another hostage situation led to the Iran-Contra scandal. Many of the President's supporters believed that the aggressive management style of his Chief of Staff, Donald Regan, was making matters worse, but the President remained loyal to his Chief of Staff and would not consider replacing him.

The President's adviser, Michael Deaver, and First Lady Nancy Reagan made a discreet approach to an experienced outsider they believed might be able to persuade the President: Robert Strauss. Others had told the President what he wanted to hear, that the controversy would blow over and that Donald Regan was more useful than not. Robert Strauss, who had closely observed the workings of two other presidential administrations, told the President the painful truth, that Donald Regan had become a liability, and that the White House needed a Chief of Staff who could mend fences, especially with Congress. Among others, Strauss recommended former Senator Howard Baker, a Republican respected on both sides of the aisle for his competence and integrity. Reagan was visibly annoyed with Strauss's suggestions, but a few days later, Donald Regan submitted his resignation and the President appointed Howard Baker to replace him. Baker skillfully managed the President's recovery from the controversy, and President Reagan left office with his popularity restored. His Vice President, George H.W. Bush, won election to succeed him.

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The first President Bush also found need for the counsel of Robert Strauss. In the Soviet Union, President Mikhail Gorbachev was attempting to reform the communist system and forge a new relationship with the United States, but his efforts faced opposition from hard-liners within the Communist Party, while newly elected leaders in the Union's constituent republics agitated for more and more autonomy. President Bush appointed Robert S. Strauss to serve as Ambassador to the Soviet Union, in hopes that Strauss's proven skills as a negotiator would ease the transition to a new era. In August 1991, only weeks after a state visit by President Bush, conservative members of the Communist Party and a few high-ranking officers of the military and KGB attempted to seize power and restore the old dictatorship. The coup collapsed, but Gorbachev's leadership had been fatally injured. Strauss presented his credentials to President Gorbachev only hours after Gorbachev resigned his post as Chairman of the Communist Party.

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While Strauss served in Moscow, the first elected president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, emerged as the most powerful figure in the fragile union, and with the agreement of the elected presidents of the other constituent republics, the USSR was officially dissolved and replaced by a loosely associated Confederation of Independent States. In December, Gorbachev resigned the presidency of a super-state that had ceased to exist. Strauss was quickly re-appointed as Ambassador to the largest of the Soviet Union's successor states, the Russian Federation. With Strauss's assistance, President Yeltsin quickly established amicable relations with the United States. Strauss resigned this post shortly after the 1992 presidential election in the United States and returned once again to private law practice with Akin Gump. In his later years, he made his home in Washington, D.C. with his wife Helen. The couple had three children.

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Apart from his law practice and government service, Robert Strauss was a popular public speaker and lecturer, and wrote extensively on law, business and public affairs for professional journals, magazines and newspapers across the United States and abroad. He served on the boards of major corporations including Xerox and the Archer Daniels Midland Company. In the academic world, he occupied the Lloyd Bentsen Chair at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, where he lectured to students of law, business and public affairs. Still active in his ninth decade, he served as Chairman of the U.S.-Russia Business Council from 1992 to 2004, and as a member of the Council on Foreign Affairs and a trustee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In 2007, the University of Texas opened its Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law. His record of service earned Robert Strauss the unqualified esteem of political leaders around the world, transcending political ideology and partisan affiliation.




This page last revised on Mar 20, 2014 14:35 EDT