In the two presidential elections, immediately preceding Bob Strauss’ becoming the national chairman of the Democratic Party in 1973, Democratic presidential nominees — Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern — had between them carried a total of 14 out of 100 states and won an average of 39.9 percent of the popular vote. Strauss, the colorful, funny and profane Texas lawyer-politician, who died last week at 95, kept the promise he made upon his election as chairman: His job was not to deliver a nominee to the party in 1976 but instead to deliver a united party to the 1976 nominee.
On the night of July 15, 1976, in Madison Square Garden, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter was nominated for president. After the nominee’s acceptance speech, Strauss organized, orchestrated and personally hosted a pageant in which he brought to the rostrum Carter’s defeated primary foes including Humphrey, “Mo” Udall, “Scoop” Jackson, Sargent Shriver, Frank Church, Jerry Brown (that’s right) and George Wallace.
Mayors, governors, senators, including Chicago’s Richard J. Daley and Delaware’s Joe Biden, answered Strauss’ summons. Then, turning serious, he brought to the stage the widow of the slain civil rights martyr, Coretta Scott King, and her father-in-law, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., who quieted the hall to deliver a Baptist benediction.
The New York crowd, many linking arms or holding hands, sang “We Shall Overcome.” Strauss had indeed delivered a united party.
The Strausses were the only Jewish family in Stamford, a cowboy town in West Texas. His father, Charlie, ran the dry goods store, and his mother, Edith, instilled in her son a self-confidence that only grew over time. He recalled no anti-Semitism while growing up in an area, he kidded, where “most people thought Hanukkah was a duck call.”
An alumnus of the University of Texas, its law school and the FBI, Strauss founded a successful law firm, invested wisely, became wealthy and eventually an adviser to U.S. presidents Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He was Carter’s envoy to the Middle East peace talks and a U.S. trade representative.
The elder Bush (who had been Republican Party chairman when Strauss was leading the Democrats) chose Strauss as the ambassador to the Soviet Union. In 1986, Strauss, according to first lady Nancy Reagan in her memoir, bluntly told her husband he had to replace White House chief of staff Donald Regan to overcome the grave Iran-Contra scandal.
But, to me, he will always be Chairman Strauss, because he loved politics, its competition, its characters and its conspiracies. Some of his best friends were political reporters, including Robert Novak and Jack Germond. The party chairmanship, he joked, was “a little like making love to a gorilla. You don’t quit when you’re tired; you quit when the gorilla’s tired.”
Udall, who was runner-up to Carter in 1976, was impressed by Strauss’ shrewdness in maintaining peace among the party’s warring factions and said of the Texan: “He could follow you through a revolving door and come out first.” George W. Bush humorously credited Strauss for some sound advice, telling him: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, Mr. President. And those are the ones you need to concentrate on.”
Strauss liked politics, and he was good at it. He was a loyal Democrat but never a poison partisan. Some of his closest friends really were Republicans. He was fun and smart. He loved his wife, Helen, and the spotlight. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.