By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Capitol Steps founder Bill Strauss was a Harvard-trained lawyer and Senate subcommittee staffer when he broke through the chrysalis of Capitol Hill conventionality to become a musical satirist.
Mr. Strauss, who died Dec. 18 of pancreatic cancer at his home in McLean, recalled the breakthrough in a phone interview shortly before his death at age 60.
It was Memorial Day 1981, he said, and he was hosting a party that ended with a jam session around the piano. Party-goers riffed on parodies of Reagan-era newsmakers.
Mr. Strauss discovered that night that he had a facility for impromptu silliness and satire. He began to wonder whether, at age 34, he might be able to make a living at it, even though his only musical training was a stint in his elementary school orchestra.
During the next several months, when not worrying about nuclear proliferation and other weighty matters, he wrote musical parodies. Enlisting other musically gifted Senate staffers, he scheduled the group's debut at the annual office Christmas party of Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.), Mr. Strauss's employer.
The group christened itself the Capitol Steps, an allusion to the location of a late-night amorous moment enjoyed by Rep. John W. Jenrette (D-S.C.) and his wife, Rita.
Capitol Steps was a hit from the beginning. For the next few years, the group performed regularly for free at parties and in church basements. "We were clinging to our day jobs," co-founder Elaina Newport said. "Frankly, we were trying not to get in trouble."
Today, Capitol Steps is still performing, although not in church basements. It's a $3 million-a-year industry with more than 40 employees who sing and satirize at venues across the country.
The group's success was "totally out of the blue," Mr. Strauss said. "Neither I nor anyone else was expecting it."
Mr. Strauss's more serious side found expression in six books he co-authored about American generations and as co-founder of Cappies, a high school critics and awards program. He also wrote three musicals -- "MaKiddo," "Stopscandal.com." and "Anasazi" -- and co-wrote with Newport two books of satire, "Fools on the Hill" (1992) and "Sixteen Scandals" (2002).
"He packed several lifetimes into his 60 years," Newport said.
William Arthur Strauss was born in Chicago and spent most of his childhood in Burlingame, Calif., in the San Francisco area. He was a Capitol page in 1963, during his junior year in high school, and graduated from Harvard University in 1969. He received a law degree from Harvard Law School and a master's degree from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, both in 1973, but knew from his first semester in law school that he did not want to practice law. The summer his classmates took the bar exam, he and his wife were on a 40-day honeymoon trip across Africa.
The couple moved to Washington in 1973, and Mr. Strauss took a position as a policy aide for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services). He moved the next year to the Presidential Clemency Board, where he directed a research team writing a report on the impact of the Vietnam War on the draft-eligible generation.
A year later, he and Larry Baskir co-wrote "Chance and Circumstance" (1978), a book about the Vietnam-era draft. Their second book, "Reconciliation After Vietnam" (1987), was said to have influenced President Jimmy Carter to issue a blanket pardon to draft resisters.
Mr. Strauss worked at the Department of Energy from 1977 to 1979 and then was offered the position of general counsel of the Selective Service System. Political objections derailed the offer: Someone pointed out that in the preface to "Chance and Circumstance," he had admitted helping a classmate eat enough to be too heavy for the draft.
The day Mr. Strauss heard about his rejection, he learned of an opening as a committee staffer with Percy. When Republicans took control of the Senate a year later, in 1980, Mr. Strauss became chief counsel and staff director of the Subcommittee on Energy, Nuclear Proliferation and Government Processes.
He had grown up listening to political satirists Tom Lehrer and Stan Freberg and had written a few political poems in college, but making a living with Capitol Steps was, in Mr. Strauss's words, "a big entrepreneurial leap."
He would never lack for material, however -- from Sen. Gary Hart and "Monkey Business" to Vice President Dick Cheney ("The Angina Monologues"). In the late 1980s, he perfected his backwards talk routine, "Lirty Dies," just in time for President Bill Clinton ("Clinton's Libido Loco") and Monica Lewinsky ("My Mama Told Me: You'd Better Sleep Around").
Made up mostly of Republicans, with a few Democrats and independents -- "to spread the blame a bit," Newport said -- the troupe, at Mr. Strauss's insistence, has always tried to be equal-opportunity satirists. "Generally people wanted to be in the show," he said, even when they were the ones being spoofed.
As Capitol Steps was taking up more of his time, Mr. Strauss was exploring American history through the cycle of generations. With co-author Neil Howe, he wrote "Generations" (1991), "13th Gen" (1993), "The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy" (1998), "Millennials Rising" (1999), "Millennials Go to College" (2003) and "Millennials and the Pop Culture" (2005).
In 1999, Mr. Strauss received a diagnosis of an aggressive strain of pancreatic cancer. The diagnosis prompted him to form the high school Critics and Awards Program, known as Cappies. "I decided this would be my calling, performing less and concentrating on starting this program," he said.
Cappies arranges for high school students to attend and review each other's shows, with top reviews published in local newspapers. Sixty Washington-area schools are involved with the program, as well as 17 additional schools in the United States and Canada. Top Cappies winners perform shows at the Kennedy Center, and student creative teams, under Mr. Strauss's oversight, have written two musicals. The most recent, "Senioritis," has been made into a movie that is to be released in March.
"He had so many different projects in the air," said Judy Bowns, his Cappies colleague for nine years, "and the amazing thing is that they were completed with a standard of excellence that was mind-boggling."
Survivors include his wife of 34 years, Janie Strauss of McLean; four children, Melanie Yee and Rebecca Strauss of McLean, Victoria Hays of Fairfax County and Eric Strauss of Reston; and one granddaughter.