A Texas-sized influence — and ego

In the 40 years since he came to Washington to open an office for his Dallas law firm, Robert Strauss has earned a richly deserved reputation as a quintessential power broker and political insider whose enormous influence across party lines is matched only by his Texas-size ego.

This well-researched biography, “The Whole Damn Deal: Robert Strauss and the Art of Politics,” will do nothing to diminish that reputation. Written by his great-niece Kathryn McGarr after the 93-year-old Strauss decided to scrap his own ghostwritten memoir, the book ably chronicles his colorful and truly remarkable life, drawing on more than 70 interviews Strauss conducted with journalist Peter Ross Range and the author’s own extensive interviews with Strauss and access to his private papers. (Range declined to tell me why Strauss decided not to publish their collaborative effort.)

But McGarr’s book is marred by its adulatory tone, perhaps understandable for an author who calls Strauss “Uncle Bob.” It is replete with effusive praise from those exposed to his formidable personality and jovial profanity since 1971, when he became treasurer and then chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the Nixon/Ford years, then served as U.S. special trade representative under Jimmy Carter, co-chairman of the National Economic Commission under Ronald Reagan and ambassador to the Soviet Union and Russia under fellow Texan George H.W. Bush.

“He is an absolute genius at brokering conflict,” Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiDems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee Robert Mueller's forgotten surveillance crime spree Clinton: White House slow-walking Russia sanctions MORE (D-Md.) gushes, while Tom Brokaw tells us Strauss “knew how to make money in Washington … by representing a lot of different interests — but he was never not a citizen. He really cared about the country, and cared about getting the right things done.”

GOP strategist Mary Matalin sends him a mash note, saying “I’m in awe of your history and larger-than-lifeness,” and former first lady Barbara Bush calls him “absolutely the most amazing politician. He is everybody’s friend and … could sell you the paper off your own wall.” Former Republican National Committee Chairman (and Strauss law partner) Ken Mehlman goes even further, pronouncing him “unbelievably relevant today, as he was in the ’70s and ’80s, and as he will be in 30 years.” 

OK, we get it that Robert S. Strauss is bigger than life, but the incessant praise runs thin after a while. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating and well-written book about one of the most interesting — and, yes, important — figures on the national political landscape in the last third of the 20th century. 

As McGarr writes, “While his power derived from being a friend to the White House and a force on [Capitol] Hill, those relationships all came down to his personality — the sparkle in his eye, his enormous and endearing ego, his humor and his colorful way of speaking ‘Texan’ that seemed to require him to say ‘goddamn,’ ‘son-of-a-bitch’ and ‘whore’ several times in any conversation.” It didn’t hurt that he also had an “incestuous” relationship with the Washington press corps.

The son of poor German Jewish immigrants in West Texas, Strauss became a big man on campus at the University of Texas after arriving in Austin in 1935. He got his first big break after graduating from law school, thanks to the same means he would employ so effectively the rest of his life — wielding the lever of political influence.

Hoping to join the FBI rather than enlist in the Army as World War II broke out in December 1941, Strauss’s application was rejected because of pro-German remarks his father once made. Strauss explained his situation to the head of the law firm he had joined, who called an influential Texan in Washington, future Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who assured the FBI that Strauss was a loyal American. J. Edgar Hoover agreed and Strauss became an FBI agent in 1942 in Columbus, Ohio, where his wife Helen was born, before being transferred to Dallas four years later. 

After that, he was off and running, leaving the FBI in 1945 to join fellow former FBI agent and law school graduate Richard Gump to start a two-man law firm that would become one of the 40 largest in the United States. He became an adviser and confidant to a succession of powerful Texans, from Lyndon Johnson to John Connally to President Bushes 41 and 43, and to Hubert Humphrey, who persuaded him to come to Washington to rescue the bankrupt DNC and help him run for president in 1968.

Humphrey didn’t make it, as we know, even though he offered to make Strauss his running mate, and the rest is history, which McGarr chronicles in rich detail. As Strauss himself, now confined to a wheelchair in his Watergate apartment, might say, “Sumbitch, she tells the whole damn deal.”