Every sonabitch in the world has been calling, from Howard Baker to the minority leader . . . There might be a story in that . . . When would this piece come out?"
Robert Strauss is using his favorite medium, the telephone, to communicate with his favorite constituency, the press. His telephone manner, the verbal equivalent of elbow-fondling, is reassuring, and a shade conspiratorial: "You won't have to share me with anybody. Reagan called and wanted time, and I wouldn't give him any . . . Hell, come on."
Strauss is the ultimate Washington troika -- lawyer, politician, lobbyist. He has even been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. "All the press calls in," he says later, "The New York Times, the Newsweek and Time bureaus. They got this story . . . 'What do you think, Bob?' . . . "
What do you think, Bob? It would be a fitting epitaph for the transplanted East Texas Tiresias who explains the political action to Bic-poised commentators. The disarming grin and languorous eyelids, the bald pate with silvery side locks, the $400 suits, the Watergate apartment where heavy beefsteak sometimes broils over coals on the terrace, the favorite sobriquet "sonabitch," the bits of paper chewed during interviews and then rolled into little balls, the perennial good humor, the candid assessment -- scatological, endearingly cynical -- all of it has entered the collective unconscious of the fourth estate.
Strauss has been written about so often that the few people who do not know him think they do. He's as comfortable as an old limousine. His gorilla joke ("Running the Democratic National Committee is like making love to a 400-pound gorilla: You don't stop when you want to -- you stop when the gorilla wants to.") has been adapted by Strauss' observers, friends and associates to fit an infinite variety of jobs.
Strauss tells the reporter, when he arrives, "Let's take the presidential factor out of it. Then if we go back and decide to put it in, we'll put it in. I'm going to structure a little bit with you, so you can get what you want done and keep me from looking like the kind of guy who would take the magazine and try to launch a presidential thing."
Structuring is part of the Strauss approach to political and financial propositions, a realistic assessment of needs and possible trade-offs mixed with a little deprecation. "You sonabitch, you . . ." It is all part of a concert that plays in the best halls of influence. Extraordinary structural components, embodied in a 63-year-old man of unextraordinary appearance, enable Strauss to do what he does so well.
* Style. Most Texas politicians sheath their hubris in faded denim, giving the impression of approachability, even humility, while the internal computer madly figures the advantages. Strauss' constant jibes convey the fact that he can be either a sympathetic mediator or a ruthless opponent. As a former associate puts it, "People like at the same time."
* Sophistication. Strauss understands the realities of special-interest politics, the medley of well-financed voices that have replaced the handful of powerful men who once ran Congress. Bob Keefe, who has known Strauss since 1964 and served as his chief deputy when Strauss was chairman of the DNC, says, "Bob can package things in a way that everybody comes out with enough of what they need."
* Flexibility. Strauss is not hampered by political affiliation, another hold-over from Lone Star realpolitik. When columnist George Will gave a party for the Reagans after the 1980 election, he invited Strauss, to the astonishment of some Democrats and Republicans. "Bob's a professional who fights hard," says Will, by way of explanation, "and shakes hands when the fight's over."
* Contacts. Three years ago he suggested to New York Gov. Hugh Carey that Felix Rohatyn, of Lazard Fr,eres, might be able to help New York City out of its financial bind. "He didn't even consult me," Rohatyn says. "He just said, 'Take two weeks off and save the city.'" Thanks to Strauss, Rohatyn is now chairman of the Municipal Assistance Corporation and a political luminary in his own right, rather than merely rich.
* Perception. A columnist says, "Strauss operates by the clips theory. Good stories tend to follow good stories. Every time a reporter starts to write, he looks back at favorable clips and thinks, 'Who am I to go against the Witcovers and Germonds?'" And no national reporter wants to be cut off from one of the most quotable and influential people in politics. "The perception that I have great influence is wrong," says Strauss. But it is the perception that counts.
* Money. Ability to raise money puts Strauss in great demand among those politicians who actually run for public office. "I'm not cheating on Fritz Mondale if I talk to Alan Cranston about how he ought to launch a presidential campaign. I'm assisting. Gary Hart and I had a wonderful conversation the other day about how he saw his chances. There's no secret to that with respect to Glenn, or Kennedy." Campaign money is readily convertible into political favors.
Put the components together and the question -- What do you think, Bob? -- gains weight and dimension. Members of Congress treat Strauss as a part of the political process. During debate of Reagan's tax bill last year, Strauss received a telephone call from Louisiana Sen. Russell Long, ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, to ask Strauss what Tip O'Neill, speaker of the House, needed in the tax bill. A few minutes later, Strauss received a call from O'Neill asking what Long needed. And they both wanted to know, through Strauss' Texas connection with chief of staff James Baker, what the White House needed.
Strauss' access to other people of influence has boosted his law firm, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, to the top of the Washington growth charts (85 lawyers in Dallas, 97 here). Much of its business lies in the passage, rather than the practice, of law. Strauss dislikes being called a lobbyist, however, and offers a home-grown Darwinian view of the legislative process: "You're sort of like an animal in the jungle. As you learn to move around the jungle, you develop a sense of trouble without knowing it's there. In Washington, I think I can sniff out the sides and dimensions of a problem."
Here is Strauss on natural selection along the Potomac:
"Horses' asses and the good guys separate out, not by creed or color or sex or political persuasion. The good guys manage to get together and the horses' asses manage to get together. It doesn't matter whether Howard Baker is a Democrat or a Republican, or Bob Dole . . . We have certain basic values about personal relationships . . . I've got people in the Republican party I can call just as fast as I can the Democrats. That doesn't mean that I won't try to beat them when they run for office next time, but that's different. That's set aside."
Strauss is a multimillionaire. He sits on several boards -- What do you think, Bob? -- including those of Xerox and the Music Corporation of America, maker of the film "E.T." His assistance is repeatedly sought in legislative struggles ranging from the creation of the Alaska pipeline to royalties on television cassettes. His opinion of presidential politics is eagerly sought.
"I'm not going to affect the choice of our party (in 1984). I'll have some influence, but a lot of other people will, too -- people who run with me and I run with, and trust me, as I do them. We've all been involved together over the years; we all ended up in the same orbit."
That orbit includes chairmen of the boards of large corporations, oil men, investment bankers, governors, entertainers, political party professiContaonals, contributors and, on the outer fringes, possible presidents--good guys all. Money, influence, an intimate knowledge of working politics, or a combination of these things, binds the good guys together.
The other good guys have fond feelings toward Strauss. "He's loyal," says Herbert Allen, chairman of the board of Columbia Pictures. "He's a hell of a salesman and he does what he says he'll do," according to Robert Rubin, of Goldman Sachs & Co. "People like to do for him," says Lee Kling, chairman of a bank holding company and a fellow fund-raiser. "He has a steady ability to stay in there," says businessman Sam Passman, also a hand in the regular Dallas poker game that includes Strauss and other wealthy Texans.
"I have good instincts," says the good guy himself. He advises other seekers of influence: "Don't keep score by the transaction. Keep score by the lifetime."
What do you think, Bob? People began asking when Strauss set up his Dallas practice in 1945, following four anomalous years in the FBI (It is difficult to imagine Strauss arresting anyone). "I was concerned about what I felt was my lack of intellectual interest in the law," he says, of his decision to start a law firm with a friend from the University of Texas Law School. "I soon found out that that was really a very small part of it."
A large part of the law was "inspiring confidence" among free-wheeling Texas entrepreneurs. The firm, according to Strauss, "just took off with energy. I started out saying a man doesn't need to make over $50,000 or $60,000 a year. Then it was over a $100,000 and then it was $150,000. Then over $200,000, $250,000, $400,000."
Strauss was one of a handful of Texans who inspired John Connally to run for governor of Texas. He raised money for Connally in three successive races, and ended up on the state's bank board after Connally was elected. The Connally connection helped make Strauss Democratic National Committeeman in 1968. A year later he opened the Washington office.
"Washington looked like a sitting duck," he recalls. He parlayed his fund-raising ability -- Strauss had access to the names of wealthy Texans and others who regularly contributed to the Democratic party during the LBJ years through a device known at the President's Club -- into being treasurer of the DNC. A reform movement was underway that would effect the nomination of George McGovern in 1972.
"There was the biggest vacuum for somebody with a little sense to take over the Democratic party. Hell, they were all walking around there barefoot, they were all smoking pot. I remember coming home one day, and saying, 'I think I'm going to pass a rule and outlaw screwing in the elevators in our building, saying they have to at least get out in the hall. Or make them do it in the offices.' It was no way to run a bidness!"
The McGovern forces viewed Strauss as anti-reform, a money man with little interest in issues and less knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts of political organization. He was shut out of the 1972 convention. Strauss told his wife, Helen, on a flight back to Dallas, "I'm figuring out how to get even. McGovern's going to lose badly, and I'm going to pick up the pieces."
Some professional Democrats saw Strauss as a throw- back to the free-wheeling political style rooted in the old Texas Democratic party. As treasurer, he accepted $50,000 in contributions from executives of Ashland Oil, in violation of the Corrupt Practices Act, a fact that the Watergate special prosecutor brought to light in 1975. Strauss said he thought he was taking the money from individuals rather than a corporation, what he calls a "technical violation"; if the statute of limitations under revised federal law had not run out, the former FBI agent might have been indicted.
Strauss managed to unify the party after the McGovern debacle, a considerable achievement. But he continued to raise money primarily from big contributors, a source of some currerty professiContant problems within the DNC. (The Republicans, who put more effort into direct mail at that time, now have 1.5 million small contributors, while the Democrats have only 170,000.) He delivered an orderly convention in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was nominated.
However, Hamilton Jordan, Carter's chief of staff, says, "We knew he wasn't for us." The Georgians considered Strauss -- with justification -- part of the Washington establishment. He stayed on as chairman, doing his fund- raising duty as a good-guy Democrat, sometimes riding in the least prestigious of the Carter campaign's chartered jets, known as the "garbage" plane. The night Carter was elected, according to a witness, Strauss "let out a stream of profanity. He said he was going back to Dallas, and we would have to deal with Carter."
Miraculously, Strauss surfaced in Plains a few months later. Now the outsider president badly needed the services of a Washington insider. What do you think, Bob? Strauss obliged, and more: he made the president laugh. "It was an interesting and mutually beneficial relationship," says Jody Powell.
One difference was Strauss' associations on the Hill. Carter made him special trade representative responsible for getting the stillborn international trade bill passed. Strauss threw himself into the old effort -- making sure everyone came out with enough of what they needed -- until "the Japanese and the Europeans began to believe that I really could deliver the American Congress." He delivered it, with some help from others, in 1979.
"Our only complaint about the trade bill," says Powell, "is that he greased it so well that we didn't get any credit."
Strauss the trade negotiator was the subject of a long and flattering profile in The New Yorker. Few reporters commented on his failure as Carter's anti-inflation "czar," or the fact that as special negotiator on the Middle East he brought the Palestinian question no closer to resolution, two admittedly difficult tasks.
The perception that Strauss can deliver the American Congress, true or not, redounds to the benefit of his law firm. Strauss has twice taken leave of the firm to perform for his party and his government, but the rise in his firm's fortunes have paralleled Strauss' political success. "At Akin, Gump, lobbying is no dirty little secret, but a point of pride," says The American Lawyer, a quarterly publication, commenting on Akin, Gump's recent phenomenal growth.
Akin, Gump's Washington office has lawyers hired from various branches of government -- the Federal Energy Administration, the Federal Power Commission, National Labor Relations Board, the Federal Trade Commission. Joel Jankowsky, former aide to House speaker Carl Albert and a certified good guy, is administrative director of Akin, Gump's political action committee, which contributes to Senate and House campaigns, governors' and other statewide contests.
"It's a misstatement to say that we trade on my influence," says Strauss, adding a bit of political tautology. "To deny that clients come to this firm because I am perceived to have influence would also be a misstatement."
Strauss says he regularly turns down lucrative lunches. "People call and say, 'If you'll go to lunch with this fella, and then write him a letter, you can make $5,000 or $10,000.' In Texas, we used to say, 'I wouldn't have lunch with that sonabitch for $10.' It's gone up, what with inflation.
"Now, I went to lunch with Bob Dole and spent two and a half hours talking about everything under the sun, and I never brought up any interest I had in the tax bill. That's the reason Bob Dole will go out in a public place with me, when nobody else can see him for five minutes. Since then I called him and asked how he felt about a matter. He told me, and I said, 'Fine, I'm glad to hear it.' But I didn't ask him to change his position, and he wouldn't do that, Bob Dole. Nobody will believe that story. Silly to tell it."
One of Strauss' colleagues says he and Strauss declined half a million dollars offered by a Japanese auto manufacturer wanting changes in trade legislation. Strauss then called a certain chairman of a certain congressional committee to tell him that Strauss would not be requiring his services in the matter; the chairman thanked the lawyer for not putting him in a difficult position, since he owed Strauss some favors. With clients like American Telephone and Telegraph, Texaco, Mobil, Marathon Oil, Northwest Energy, Braniff, Xerox and Ringling Brothers -- Barnum & Bailey -- Strauss could well afford to turn down the occasional Japanese car manufacturer.
"The image of influence in Washington creates the reality," says a member of the Carter administration who is still involved in politics. "The image is self-enforcing. What corrupts the political process is the trade-off of political power for political money--a vote, a regulation in the drafting of a bill, something. It's a game that only a certain elite can play."
Columnist George Will, on the other hand, sees no harm in trading on influence. "We need a professional class of governors. I don't look down on political expertise, or renting it out."
Strauss insists that his activities simply "overlap a lot. Every one of them helps the other one. In politics, you have a network of political operators and people who support political campaigns, and a lot of knowledge and skills that you can't just itemize out." In business, "you turn the record over, it plays an altogether different tune."
Here's the flip side:
"There's a fella coming here to talk about a major business transaction. Now it may be there's a piece of that investment, or something, in it for me. I don't know. I'm not his lawyer; he has a lawyer. He wants my judgment on a major, major transaction involving millions and millions of dollars. He said, 'I just need to talk to you for an hour, Bob . . .'"