Robert Schwarz Strauss

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Robert Schwarz Strauss

Robert Schwarz Strauss (born 1918) was a master fundraiser and strategist for the Democratic Party between 1968 and 1980, active in both Texan and national campaigns. He later served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia under President George Bush.

Robert Schwarz Strauss was born in Lockhart, Texas, on October 19, 1918. He grew up in Stamford, Texas, the son of a small-town merchant who ran a dry-goods business. Robert helped out behind the counter as he grew up. Despite his family's modest circumstances and the fact that the country was in the midst of the Depression, Strauss entered the University of Texas at Austin. There he got his first taste of politics when he worked as a clerk at the state capitol in order to support himself at school. While at the University of Texas, he met and began a long-lasting friendship with John B. Connally, future governor of Texas. In 1937 he worked on the campaign of Lyndon B. Johnson, who was making his first run for elected office. Johnson ran for Congress on a New Deal platform of support for Franklin D. Roosevelt. The excitement of politics captured Strauss' imagination.

In 1941 Strauss graduated from the University of Texas Law School and joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He worked as a special agent for the FBI until 1945, when he resigned and helped found a law firm—Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld—which became a prestigious law firm in Dallas. Prudent investments in real estate and radio stations made him a wealthy man by the early 1960s. In 1964 he was named president of the Strauss Broadcasting Company.

Strauss re-entered politics in 1962 when his friend John Connally ran for the governorship of Texas. Strauss served as a chief fund raiser for the successful campaign and was appointed by Connally to the state banking board, where he served for six years.

In 1968 Strauss began his long association with the national Democratic Party when Connally appointed him to the Democratic National Committee. He was to become an important political force in the party for the next 12 years.

Strauss managed the 1968 Humphrey-Muskie campaign in Texas, demonstrating both a mastery of finances (a campaign chest that ended in the black) and an ability to negotiate an acceptable middle ground among disparate elements of the Democratic Party. This would be his trademark as he continued his political career.

In 1970 Strauss was elected treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and was charged with reducing the 1968 party debt of $9,300,000 to manageable proportions. It was a gigantic undertaking. Yet by the end of his tenure in July 1972 Strauss had reduced the debt by one-half, funded the 1972 Democratic National Convention, and placed the credit of the national party on a solid basis. During the 1972 campaign he served as chairman of the National Committee to Re-elect a Democratic Congress.

After the disastrous defeat of Senator George McGovern in 1972, disaffected elements of the Democratic Party representing the old established conservative wing made their bid to regain control of the party structure. Their opening gambit was to challenge Jean Westwood for the party chairmanship. Robert Strauss was their candidate. After an acrimonious, month-long struggle, Strauss was elected Democratic Party chairman, promising to use his talents to bring the party together again. "I am a centrist, a worker, a doer, a putter-together, and those talents belong to you."

Strauss began immediately the task of conciliation between the "new" political forces that had emerged in 1972—women, African Americans, and the young—and the "old guard" Democratic establishment of labor, urban machines, and the South. The task was to define a party in which George McGovern, Shirley Chisholm, George Wallace, Mayor Daley, and George Meany could all find a place and contribute towards winning a national election. That he succeeded was evident in 1976 when Jimmy Carter was elected president. Carter called Strauss "the greatest party chairman I have ever known."

President Carter quickly tapped Strauss to participate in a panel with ten other high level officials to select personnel for the Carter administration. In March 1977, Strauss' own nomination as special representative for trade negotiations was confirmed by the Senate. The post carried with it the rank of ambassador, and Strauss was widely regarded as an excellent choice.

In April 1979, following the Camp David accords, Strauss was named U.S. ambassador-at-large for negotiations on Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. While his open negotiating manner had been an asset to him on the domestic political scene, Strauss appeared to be less effective in the Middle East. He soon left this post to become chairman of President Carter's reelection committee in November 1979. In consideration of his services to the nation, Strauss was awarded the Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian award given by the United States—by President Carter in January 1981.

After the defeat of Jimmy Carter, Strauss resumed the practice of law as a partner in his old law firm. In 1983 he was appointed by President Reagan to the Bipartisan Commission on Central America Policy headed by Henry Kissinger. In the 1984 presidential campaign he was called on to canvass party leaders for advice on behalf of Walter Mondale, but played no larger role. He formed a bipartisan committee with Melvin Laird to study the primary system's place in electoral politics in March 1985. Strauss served as United States Ambassador to Russia from 1991-1993 under President George Bush.

Further Reading

There is no biography yet of Robert Strauss. Material can be found by checking the entries in Who's Who in America, the yearly index of Facts on File, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.