R. Peter Straus, media executive who led VOA under Carter, dies at 89

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Mr. Straus’s first name. His first name was Ronald, not Ronad.

August 8, 2012

R. Peter Straus, a New York media executive who served as director of the Voice of America in the late 1970s and who earlier led a court battle that resulted in the reapportionment of many state legislatures, died Aug. 6 of a heart ailment at his home in New York City. He was 89.

His daughter Diane Straus Tucker confirmed the death.

Mr. Straus, whose grandfather was a principal owner of Macy’s department store, was born into a wealthy and politically active family in New York. Throughout his life, he combined public service with a successful career in business.

In 1964, he was a campaign manager for Robert F. Kennedy’s successful run for the U.S. Senate from New York. During the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, he was an administrator in the U.S. Agency for International Development, in charge of African affairs.

Under President Jimmy Carter, Mr. Straus served as VOA director from 1977 to 1979.


R. Peter Straus, a New York media executive who served as director of the Voice of America in the late 1970s, died Aug. 6 (Courtesy of Voice of America)

Through his second marriage, Mr. Straus was also the stepfather of Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern with whom President Bill Clinton admitted having a relationship that was “not appropriate.”

In the late 1940s, Mr. Straus joined WMCA AM, a family-run radio station in New York. For decades, the station would be the base of his business operations and his advocacy in the public sphere.

With its energetic rock-and-roll disc jockeys, known as “the good guys,” WMCA became one of New York’s most popular stations in the late 1950s.

Soon after becoming president of the station in 1959, Mr. Straus began broadcasting editorials, a relatively rare practice at the time.

In the editorials, which Mr. Straus delivered in a voice he once described as “fair — about a C-minus,” he often discussed what he considered unfair apportionment of New York’s state legislature.

He maintained that the districts left the urban areas vastly underrepresented.

“Keeping abreast of WMCA’s interesting editorials, however,” New York Times broadcasting columnist Jack Gould wrote in 1962, “does require a highly developed tolerance of the enervating disk jockeys and the brand of music that Mr. Straus describes as ‘popular entertainment.’ ”

In 1961, Mr. Straus and his station filed a federal lawsuit, WMCA v. Simon, that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled in 1964 that New York’s legislative apportionment system was unconstitutional. The ruling was later applied to many other states and prompted efforts to create fair legislative representation through the principle of “one man, one vote.”

Ronald Peter Straus was born Feb. 15, 1923, in New York City. His father was a New York state senator and the administrator of the U.S. Housing Authority under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The younger Mr. Straus graduated in 1943 from Yale University, where he majored in government and international relations and was captain of the fencing team. During World War II, he was a B-17 bomber pilot in the Army Air Forces, flying 35 missions over Germany. He was awarded six Air Medals.

He stayed on after the war as an official in the military occupation of Germany. He then worked for pioneering public relations executive Edward L. Bernays before joining his family’s radio business.

Mr. Straus, who spoke six languages, served with the International Labor Office, a branch of the United Nations, in Geneva from 1950 to 1955.

He ran the organization’s Washington office from 1955 to 1958.

In 1986, the Straus family sold WMCA but soon acquired several weekly newspapers in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Mr. Straus continued as chairman of Straus News until his death.

His wife of 45 years, Ellen Sulzberger Straus, who was the niece of a former New York Times publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, died in 1995.

Mr. Straus married Marcia Lewis, Lewinsky’s mother, in 1998.

In addition to his wife, of New York, survivors include four children from his first marriage, Diane Straus Tucker, the publisher of Washington Monthly magazine, of Washington, Kate Caple of Wellesley, Mass., Jeanne Straus and Eric Straus, both of New York; two stepchildren, Michael Lewinsky and Monica Lewinsky, both of Southern California; two brothers; and nine grandchildren.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.