He may be the only man in America who can go to a Cleveland fund-raiser and end up telling the host's Italian-immigrant mother: "Your boys are ugly, ma'am, damn ugly boys. But you're beautiful." Her fine old hand is crooked in his arm.She loves it.
It doesn't matter what Bob Strauss is selling -- Goo Goo Candy Clusters, youth elixirs, presidents of the United States. You're buying.
"My friends, Jimmy Carter has been getting a bum rap . . . and it's up to you and me to do something about it. My friends, presidential leadership is always tested in a time of great crisis. And then the American public puts a grade on that leadership. Well, Jimmy Carter measures up, he measures up."
Catching him in the full Texas roll of his rhethoric, that dulcet, kazoo voice massaging your ego and his, the words undulant, personal, mesmeric, above all earnest, you could shut your eyes for an instant and think you've hit on some late-night-radio talk jocky coming in on 50,000 watts, clear channel, from KBOB, Frot Worth. Maybe his name is Uncle Sonny. Or Brother Robert. Bob Strauss would never do.
"My friends, I'm not saying Jimmy ycarter is simon-pure. I'll be candid with you. I think he had an exceeding mediocre first year-and-a-half in office. Maybe his motivations made him put too much on his plate. But Jimmy Carter wanted to get it done because it was right."
Suddenly the big voice is soft, furry, rubbing up against your leg like a cat.
"Friends, the other day a man came up to me and said, 'Bob, ain't nobody for the president but the people.' Day or two before that another fellow came up and said, 'Bob, why is it you feel so strongly about this man, Jimmy Carter?' Well, I have the answer to that question, my friends. Jimmy Carter never asked me to do anything I couldn't go home and tell Helen and my family about. And for that I'm grateful."
Till next time, neighbors.
Strategy No. 4: While St. Jimmy stays home in the White House, unifying the country, Bob Strauss, his homey John the Baptist, courses America in a $700-an-hour Learjet, Model 24D, milking and moving the people. It's going down like cream.
Nobody moves the people like Bob Strauss. That's because he's regular as tap water. Forget those handmade New York suits and that black sapphire on his left pinkie and those pointy loafers his executive assistant back in Washington calls his "fairy shoes." (As in tooth fairy.) Those things don't count a lick. Bob Strauss can relate. Bob Strauss can touch, get things out of you. It's his God-given political genius.
"As many towns as there are in America -- Abilene, Albany -- you name them, I can go and do the same thing," he says, somehow without sounding arrogant. "Pretty soon we're going to Florida, fly around six little towns and get the money." Later, tucking at your knee, getting you to nod: "What this is is an unbelievable love story between me and the American people."
The seduction that goes on between Bob Strauss and the person or room he's working is not so terribly subtle; it's just that he's so damn good at it.
"Bob Strauss is the man who takes money from the rich and votes from the poor and convinces both he's looking out for their interests," he will say, cozying up with some artful self-deprecation.
Bob Strauss is Jimmy Carter's campaign chairman. He used to be his Middle East ambassador, and before that his special trade representative (with Cabinet-level rank) and, for about five minutes, it seems, his special counselor on inflation. He got out of that job, and Alfred Kahn got in it. "That poor bastard, Fred Kahn," Bob Strauss says, "he gets no credit. He knows what the problem is: kEverybody in America is looking out for his own interest."
Bob Strauss gets a lot of credit, a lot of it deserved. For 10 years, ever since he came to Washington to be treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, he has ridden high and visible. "I have enough sense to know that the shelf life of a fellow riding high as I am is the same as that of little old green grapes," he once told a reporter. "They go fast." Bob Strauss is still ripe.
In his latest job, Strauss is Jimmy Carter's unchallenged deal cutter, power player, conciliator, wheedler, cajoler, delegate procurer and all-around political manipulator on the road to reelection. You get the idea he is delighted to be back in raw politics.
Exactly how he goes about doing all of the above is a bit of a mystery. The fact is, understanding Bob Strauss' manifold ways is a little like trying to grab air or box kilowatts. He likes it that way. He also likes people to marvel at his results. "You don't do it by the numbers," Strauss said once when pressed on his inflation strategy. He didn't say how you do do it. Ask him how he handled Anwar Sadar and Menachem Begin and he says, "Hell, it's the way you look at a fellow and answer his questions. You don't go piking around making promises you can't keep."
Somehow, the rabbit will pop out of the hat, the peanut will show up under the right cup.
Don't bring up dumb words like "strategy." "Strategy?" he says, as if the word were releasing stink bombs. "There's no such thing as long-range campaign strategy. I get up every morning and I say, 'Bob, now what are we going to do today?' I bet I put in 50, 60 phone calls every day. That's our strategy. We're talking to America, and America thinks it's getting an answer."
Strauss is Carter's campaign chairman; he is not the campaign manager. That job belongs to Tim Kraft. Kraft organized and delivered the field operation in last week's Iowa caucuses, brought in workers from other states when it became necessary, handled the swarms of close detail that accompany a statewide assault. What Bob Strauss did was make the key money plays, according to his executive assistant, Vera Murray, who has been with him 10 years. Bob Strauss gets involved at the level of decision.
Bob Strauss is no man for detail, never has been (though, ironically, he can carry hundreds of phone numbers in his head and remember your mug five years from now). As he puts it: "I've always run from the outside. I don't fit in with structure. The reason Jimmy Carter and I get along is because he trusts me."
Strauss phones in practically every night when he gets home, he says. "Jimmy and I talk shorthand. We get our business done in a hurry."
Bob Strauss is not an intellectual or an analyst. He is a practitioner. That, in a way, is Texas.
Some would say he is the classic nonideologue, literally seeking agreement at almost any costs. "I'm a bridging of the old and the new in politics," he says. "I'm a centrist, a putter-together." In Dallas, he says, he was known as a negotiating lawyer; he was also known as a few other things.
This is the man who got John Connally and Ralph Yarborough, arch-enemies, to campaign together for the '68 national ticket. Yarborough once called Strauss a "henchman" of Connally's.
This is the man who got the lion to lie down with the lamb -- or at least shake hands with him. That was in 1974, at the Democratic mini-convention, when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley shook hands with the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Bob Strauss was party chairman. Two years earlier, Jackson was one of those who had driven the embittered Daley from the convention hall in Miami Beach.
He is 61 years old. The hair is silvered and LBJ-wavy. The stomach, not quite gutty, befits a man who has made several millions wheeling and dealing. Squint and you see a cigar-chomping union boss. Squint again and you see a Texas silk-stocking lawyer with six grandchildren. He can be nasty in the clinches; he can kill you with kindness. He'll snap at an aide who has misspelled a name; he'll go out of his way to help an elderly lady into a car.
"I'm very much like a drug addict," he will say in a moment of sudden candor. "I need all this attention. It's not so much the narcotic of applause. It's the narcotic of power."
He gives the president a list of 15 political phone calls every day, he says. "The other weekend, I gave him 100 calls to make. 'Ha, that'll hold him,' I thought. Damn, if he didn't come back and say, 'Rosalynn and I finished your phone calls early. Didn't have anything else to do.'"
He slows, steals into a smile. "Helen thinks if Jimmy Carter is reelected, we can maybe go home for good. We'll see." Flying High
It is an airplane that seems totally correct for the man. Climbs higher and faster than a 727. Hits 480 mph without trying. The seats are genuine leather. The coffee comes out of a drawer in the wall. It's just 40 minutes from Washington to Cleveland in this streaking little bunny, and that's where "the chairman" is headed right now. Forty minutes? That's barely time to get your coat off, slick your razor-pressed pant leg past your hose, and work into a story or a jibe or just plain good old talk.
"So we spend a couple thousand extra in this baby," Bob Strauss explains; "we pick up an extra $50,000 in cash the same day."
Bob Strauss and his executive mailing tube. Time is money at this level and this afternoon, Bob Strauss, lifting off like a rocket from National Airport, is going to be short on one, long on the other. In Shaker Heights tonight, he'll pick up a fat Manila envelope with the figure $130,000 scrawled in red magic marker on it. Easy when you get the hang of it. This is the man who once raised "$1 million in two hours with nine people wandering around California." Course, that was in the days before there were federal election laws on campaign giving.
He is knocked back in his overstuffed seat, leg up, tie down, vest unbuttoned, belly out. Here is a man at ease with the way the dice have rolled. Enemies? Hell, got a whole passel of them. Friends, too.
This is how the Strauss roadshow works: On Jan. 21, the day of the Iowa caucuses, he was in Wichita for lunch, Kansas City for dinner, Des Moines in time to "handle" press. Bob Strauss loves handling press. He did a Frank Reynolds interview at 10:30 p.m., then a tape with Morton Dean of CBS. Then he closeted with Jody Powell till 2 o'clock in the morning. o
The next morning, Tuesday, when Jimmy Carter had come in with 59.1 percent of the Iowa straw vote, Bob Strauss was out of bed at 5:45, full of beans. It was nothing, he told Tom Brokaw on the "Today show. The president "likes confrontation in a partisan way," he said. He would love to have been here: St. Jimmy.
Strauss made Springfield, Mo., in time for lunch (a two-tiered lunch, one for the $1,000-givers, one for the $250-givers), Jefferson City, Mo, in time for tea (he met state legislators in the capitol cloakroom, and got in an ERA plug for Rosalynn), St. Louis in time for dinner, and then got home to ywashington and in bed before midnight clanged.
"We use meal time for working, travel in between," Bob Strauss explains.
Actually, this plan doesn't belong to Bob Strauss at all; he's just commandeered it. The plane belongs to S. Lee Kling, the Carter/Mondale Presidential Committee finance chairman. Kling is seated beside Strauss this afternoon. A St. Louis businessman (he heads a string of banks), Kling was personally recruited for this job by Strauss and the president. The Learjet, part of a company called Flight Charter which Kling also controls, is being rented by the campaign committee at going rates. k
Lee Kling is to Bob Strauss in showmanship what Jack Pardee is to George Allen. The two get along like brothers. Lesson No. 1: Don't ever try to follow Bob Strauss to a podium.
So what are you going to tell them today in Cleveland?
"Hell, how do I know? I have to see what they look like first."
Kling, breaking up, half-whispers: "He's not kidding."
On the podium or off, Bob Strauss can tell you things and make you feel his whispering in your ear. It's a knack.
"You know, I argued that the president should go debate in Iowa. Ham, Jody and I argued very strongly for it. Stu Eizenstat sent in a hard memo in support of my position. But he wouldn't listen. I don't win many arguments with the president."
Later, at a press conference, he will say: "I wanted him to wait 15 stinking days with that grain embargo so we could go ahead and carry Iowa for sure. No, he couldn't wait 15 minutes."
What explains Jimmy Carter's rise from his own ashes? "I don't know, maybe media thought they made him, and it was time to even it up some."
Quickly: "Course, I don't have anything against media. Media's been very fair to me. I don't have any quarrele with media."
Bob Strauss can engage you with his humility, his down-at-the-Sunoco friendliness. "Getting up with you," they call it in Texas.
""hell, I know I've got an overblown reputation for being a good politician. And the trouble is, I believe it. There are two people largely responsible for my success right now, and I believe in giving them both credit: Khomeini and Teddy Kennedy." 'Class Guy'
Cleveland. Bob Strauss' jet scissors though egg-blue heaven to come on glowering Midwest. The plane touches down like silk on your arm, then strolls to the tarmac. There is a knot of folks waiting, a few cameras. Also a cat-gray Rolls. The Rolls belongs to Vince Marota, the man who invented Mr. Coffee. The fund-raiser tonight is to be at Marotta's neo-Tudor Shaker Heights home, the one with the bridge over a creek in the front yard "to give it a country feel."
On the way in from the airport, Strauss starts giving Marotta and needle. How was he supposed to put together a fund-raiser when everybody's out of town? Marotta says.
"Well, hell, if I thought it was tough, I wouldn't have given it to you. Would have come out here myself a couple days ago. I don't give the job to just any . . . punk."
"I built this shopping center here," Marotta says, above the purr of the limo. "You're going back maybe 15 years now. See that esplanade? Goes into a J. C. Penney at one end, Sears at the other. I've got a bunch of shopping centers. Built houses, too. I didn't need Mr. Coffee to pay for lunch."
"An American success story," says Bob Strauss.
They talk about Joe DiMaggio. Di-Mag does commericials for Marotta's company. "Class guy," says Marotta. "Class guy," says Strauss. "Course you know he's a good friend of Ed's." (This is Edward Bennett Williams.) DiMag won't make the party tonight. (Golf tournament, reportedly.) Later, Strauss says: "I think I'll call old Joe and ride his a--. Marotta's so mad at him he could kill him."
At chez Marotta, the guests are starting to pile in: Cleveland's finest. "And don't you look lovely, my, so lovely," Strauss says to Marotta's wife, taking her hand. "Glad to see somebody in the family has some class." She is moved.
So are the true Democratic givers an hour later when Bob Strauss, the president's money man, makes his little speech and accepts the Manila envelope of checks from Marotta. It turns out the checks will have to be given back later since the donors didn't list their occupations on them.) Bob Strauss unbuttons his suit coat. Takes a half-step forward. Jams a paw in his pocket. Talking to YOU out there. A benignly weary smile.
One of his standard stories. It is a story on himself. He plays it like a fish, letting it flap on the water before he reels it and the folks in. He starts by telling them, so humbly, "Now I've been a bit of a lawyer. And I've been a bit of a businessman. And I guess I've served this president in three fields, and I'm awfully proud of that."
All ears are on Brother Robert.
"Now Helen and I have been married 39 years, it'll be 40 in May, and I have this little story I'd like to tell you, if I may. This one particular evening, Helen and I were on the way home and we decided to stop in at the Madison Hotel in Washington for a drink. Well, I drank a couple of martinis in a hurry, and she had her one Scotch. And I guess I was feeling pretty good because I turned to Helen and I said, 'Helen, you know, when you stop to think about it, there aren't very many great leaders in this country.' And Helen paused and then she said, 'You know, dear, I think you're right. And I suspect there's even one less than you think right now.'"
A few more stories, some public kudos to Marotta (beaming), and then leave them laughing: "My friends, we have a saying in Texas that anybody who works over 10 minutes when there's a free bar is a damn fool." Power and Poker
Bob Strauss likes to rise when it's still dark outside. He reads the papers. "First thing I do at an airport is get a local paper and skin it. 'Cause if you don't, you're going to end up saying something in your talk about it being too bad Sheriff Jones is not here today and Sheriff Jones has just been arrested for raping the mayor's wife."
By 6:45 a.m., he's ready for work, through lately his wife has been trying to rein him in on that. Fidgety, restless, ready to smoke with deals when the rest of the world is still asleep, he'll sometimes put in a call to Ham Jordan's assistant, also an early bird, to see what's cooking over there. Information is power. Bob Strauss has a lot of information.
By 2 o'clock, he's effectively done for the day. His people try not to schedule anything big after 3 p.m. It's just the way his metabolism works. He discovered it years ago. "When I was a businesman in Dallas, I'd sometimes go for a steam and a rub at noon. I'd be so stoked up, I couldn't sit still for it, you know?"
By late afternoon, the clock has wound down. He can suddenly look old, weary, circled under the eyes. In the evening, at parties, Bob Strauss will be on automatic entertainment pilot. That's not work.
Most other things are. Bob Strauss has a 5,000-name Christmas card list. There is a chauffeur in his dark-blue Chrysler New Yorker. (He used to have a baby-blue Lincoln with velveteen interior and, of course,, a phone.) There are seven telephones in his Watergate penthouse. When he was Middle East ambasador, there were nine phones, with a direct line to the White House. There are 100 suits in his closet. Bob Strauss loves clothes.
He has a standing poker game in Dallas every Saturday afternoon; he never misses it when he's in Texas. The game is Hold 'Em. He's been in the game for 30 years. It's a way of keeping himself a Texan. "My negatives are very low, my positives are very high in Texas," he says. As long as he keeps his Texas base, he says, Washington can't lay a glove on him.
Those who have known him for a long time insist he is the same now as he was in Texas; only the stories are more refined. "He always had an ability to read people instantly and bend them to his ways -- though always ethically," says Sam Passman, a Dallas attorney. Forty years ago, when Bob Strauss was a pledge at Sigma Alpha Mu at the University of Texas, Sam Passman was the fraternity president. Passman is in Strauss' poker game. There's no drinking and little smoking the games, Passman says. How is Strauss at poker? "How do you think? He's the best of all of us."
There were others back then at the University of Texas who went on to cut their benchmarks. John Connally was one, Walter Cronkite was another Rep. Jake Pickle was a third.
"I met Bobby when he was handing out leaflets trying to get John Connally elected student president," says Creekmore Fath, a Texas lawyer who has worked on three congressional committees. "He was just this little boy from west Texas who showed up wanting to work for John. Smarter than hell."
Bob Strauss didn't really get up with John Connally till years later. By then, Strauss, had a successful Dallas law firm, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. That office today has a huge Washington branch. Five years ago the Washington branch was minuscule.
In '62, Strauss served as a principle fund raiser for Connally's first gubernatorial campaign. Later Connally appointed Strauss to the state banking board. Six yearas later, Connally got Straus appointed to the Democratic National Committee. Bob Strauss' national career was off and running. In 1972, when Strauss was running for the party chairmanship, Connally said at a Houston news conference, "I haven't known whether to endorse him or denounce him. I don't know which will help him."
As the Texas Observer once put it: "When Connally eats watermelon -- Strauss spits seeds."
Bob Strauss doesn't want to do a lot of jawboning about John Connally nowadays. Yes it's a little ironical they're on the other side of the political fence. Sure, they're still great friends. "We last talked Christmas Day. Course, we know what subjects to avoid, we just small-talk." Later, he will say he thinks Connally has been "badly advised" in his run for the nomination.
Bob Strauss was never as close to Lyndon Johnson as he has been to Connally, though in some ways the popular perception is the reverse of that. Connally was Johnson's protege; Strauss is Connally's.
One of the criticisms that hounds him through his political career is that he is one of the great appropriators. He can take his licks and somehow make you think he's just won. Says John White, current DNC chairman; "Strauss is big enough to take his licking and grin. And even turn it into a kind of victory."
Says a former Democratic activist, who worked with Strauss when he was party chairman: "I've heard him say things like, 'I beat Bush twice in Texas.' Well, one time George Bush ran against Lloyd Bentsen, and Strauss was kind of involved. The other time Bush ran against Yarborough, and Strauss had obviously nothing to do with that. Don't get me wrong, though. I like the guy. Reminds me of the George C. Scott movie -- whatsit -- "The Flim Flam Man.'" Salvation Show
Cincinnati. The Bob Strauss salvation show has honked down here. Strauss was met late last night at the airport by Marvin Warner, breeder of horses and real estate, a former ambassador to Switzerland. Warner is a millionaire good ole boy, too: from Birmingham. Has a green Fleetwood and a knee-slap. Warner has put together a breakfast meeting of Cincinnati businessmen at the Queen City Club Strauss will milk and move.
He sits at the head table, framed by a curtain, his head bobbing over a spray of fresh flowers. On his right is Warner on his left is Carl Lindner, chairman and president of American Finincial Corp., a diversified holding company with assets of $3 billion. Carl Lindner is a Republican, though last time around he showed up at a few Democratic functions. All morning, Strauss will play to him, woo him. But Lindner is a slippery fish. Very low-key, despite the canary-yellow Stutz Bearcat he drives.
Strauss is on: "I took the vice premier of China through this country for five days at the president's request. His eyes stayed like saucers the whole time. He knows what a great country we've got here. People like you make this country great."
At the end, he's got pledges for $81,500. Not exactly a windfall, but not bad for a half-morning's work. By 10:40 a.m., Bob Strauss is strapped in his Learjet. He will be home in Washington in 50 minutes.
He's ebullient on the way home, a Teddy Roosevelt from Stamford, Tex. At one point, he talks about growing up, back there, a thousand dreams ago, in that little one-horse last-picture-show town.
"What drive I have in my life comes from my mother, who worked every day and wasn't a damn bit of good with people. My father was terrific with people. He understood them, what tuned them, what made them cry. And he wasn't worth a damn in business. I don't think he ever accumulated more than $14 in his life. We had this little store. I used to help out behind the counters."
This lights a tiny bulb. "You know, I'm going home to Dallas this weekend. I'll have lunch with my children on Sunday, and they'll have dinner with me on Sunday evening I'm awfully proud of my children. I'd like them to be able to say someday that their daddy was more than just a politician.
But Bob Strauss, of course, doesn't say what that more might be. That's for you to figure out.