Yes, that was Mr. Democrat, Robert Strauss, having a quiet lunch yesterday at the Jockey Club with First Lady Nancy Reagan. . . .

The Washington Post

Did I miss the primary where they elected Bob Strauss Mr. Democrat? Could Democrats vote, or was it entirely up to the likes of William Buckley and George Will?

Buckley selected Strauss as his Democratic co-questioner in last year's candidate debates. Will has touted Strauss twice for president and once for secretary of state in the past few months. Besides being "Mr. Democrat," Strauss, age 69, is also an "elder statesman" and "wise man." In fact, he's "the Capital's Leading Wise Man," according to the headline on a recent New York Times puffer that was worth a pile to his influence-peddling operation. Even as he dismisses Strauss' hopes of playing broker at the Democratic convention, Albert Hunt of The Wall Street Journal says that the next Democratic president would "be a fool not to put Mr. Strauss in his Cabinet."

Why? Is it his devotion to liberal values? His deep insight into the issues facing our nation? Hardly. Strauss's rare public remarks on public issues are embarrassingly banal. For depth and passion, they make his pal Bob Dole seem like Henry Kissinger. Writing on trade recently in The Post, Strauss opined: "There is no time like the present to get the job done, and the key players all know it. . . . There is nothing to prevent a good, sound bill from being worked out. . . ." etc., etc. This is best translated as: "Goddamit, I want Bob Strauss's name in the paper tomorrow."

Is it his record of devoted public service? Strauss was a successful fund raiser and party chairman in the early 1970s. During the Carter years he built up his re'sume' on the George Bush model: a few months each as special trade representative, president's counselor on inflation, Middle East negotiator and chairman of the reelection campaign. His achievements in any of these posts were not remarkable. But they got him the title of ambassador and lots of new clients when he returned to his law firm in 1981. The firm has become one of Washington's largest and most profitable.

But, as The Times says, "His real influence in Washington derives not from his past titles, but from the force of his personality and the quality of his judgment." "Judgment" has become the preferred euphemism these days for what Washington fixers offer, now that Michael Deaver (another Strauss pal) has discredited "access."

The idea that someone like Strauss is a great fount of "judgment" is about one-third humbug directed at skeptics, one-third humbug directed at his customers -- business clients, presidents, journalists -- and one-third true. But it's judgment of a particular kind. Carter's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, writes in his memoir that he listened to Strauss "because I knew that his 'ideas' were more accurately an amalgam of the collective thoughts and opinions of the Washington political and media establishments." What Strauss really sells to outsider presidents like Carter and Reagan (payment in ego) and to corporate clients (payment in cash) is Washington's blessing.

What he sells to journalists is more subtle. Strauss provides good quotes and leaks when he can. But it's not as a source that reporters value Strauss. They generally know blarney when they hear it. Jordan describes Strauss's technique of inventing a reason to talk to Carter, however briefly, so he could lunch out on, "As I was saying to the president. . . ." What seduces journalists into Strauss's conspiracy of hype is partly his mastery of the peculiar Washington style of flattery-by-insult (sanitized version: "How the hell are you, you old pig farmer?"). It's also his genuine interest in their view of things (always a sure sign of wisdom in others), which he can recycle. In short, it's his embrace -- his reassurance that there is a Washington establishment and they're in it.

Virtually everyone in Washington recognizes that Bob Strauss is 99 percent hot air, yet they all maintain this "elder statesman" and "Mr. Democrat" routine like some sort of elaborate prank on the rest of the world. Is it unsporting not to play along? I don't think so. It's a little too convenient for conservatives and Republicans that "Mr. Democrat" should be a man so obviously more interested in being seen as a friend of the president than in who the president happens to be. It's an insult to the Democratic Party -- partly self-inflicted, to be sure -- that its symbolic head should be a man whose political influence is out for hire to the highest bidder. And it's a telling comment on the Washington establishment that so shallow a figure should be considered one of its "wise men."

Of course, Strauss may be no different from the Democratic elder statesmen of the past. Someone like Clark Clifford worked harder to keep a patina of "law office" on his lobbying business, and played the Brahmin, in contrast to Strauss' po' boy routine. But the scam was the same.

In fact, every great capital probably has a Mr. Fixit, a self-promoting middleman. In Tehran, when you're in need of "judgment," you go to the elder statesman Manucher Ghorbanifar. He doesn't have much in common, spiritually, with the ruling ayatollahs. They let him make his millions and keep his body parts in one place because he's useful to them. But at least no one calls him "Mr. Shiite."