Several weeks after President Jimmy Carter lost his 1980 re-election battle, his campaign chairman, Bob Strauss, was looking ahead.
Over breakfast, the venerable Dallas lawyer-lobbyist praised how Ronald Reagan was conducting his transition and noted that he would attend a dinner with him later that week.
Asked why he was so hard to reach after Reagan routed his candidate, Strauss quipped, “The truth of the matter was I was in Las Vegas dead drunk with my wife, losing a lot of money and having a wonderful time.”
That’s the Bob Strauss who has been a Washington fixture for nearly four decades: funny, smart, sometimes profane, always ready to adapt to changing circumstances.
It explains why Strauss, who celebrates his 90th birthday this weekend, has been beloved by senior figures of both parties – and the press.
He’s something of a disappearing breed in this increasingly partisan capital; his personal and political friendships span the two major parties and enabled him to hold senior positions under Carter, a Democrat, and George H.W. Bush, a Republican.
Though retired from active politics and in a wheelchair since breaking his hip years ago, he showed at lunch recently that he is keeping close tabs on the current campaign. He expects a big Democratic victory Nov. 4 and a nascent rebound for his party in Texas.
Bob Strauss first attained political prominence in Texas in the 1960s through his friendship with Gov. John Connally, but he was 50 when he got his first major national post: treasurer of a broke Democratic Party after the 1968 election.
In 1972, he was elected national chairman, backed by governors and congressional leaders eager to reverse a leftward swing that led to George McGovern’s disastrous defeat.
Strauss modified the nominating process and gave a key role in the 1974 midterm elections to one of his gubernatorial backers, a little-known Georgian named Jimmy Carter.
Carter used that platform to build a presidential bid. Later, Strauss acknowledged that he hadn’t realized Carter’s ambition when he picked him after a conversation with Atlanta lawyer Charles Kirbo, an old friend who was close to Carter.
His chairmanship also cemented a friendship with the transplanted Texan who was his Republican counterpart, the elder Bush. Three decades later, he found a place in his Dallas law firm for Bush’s grandson, George P. Bush.
Aboard the Carter plane days before the election, he told me that, if the Democrats won, he hoped to be the president’s special trade representative, a perfect job for someone with his skills and one that might later benefit his law firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.
When he got the job, he made sure that reporters who covered him were not beaten on the story.
Indeed, Strauss was a master at cultivating the press, from the political writers who covered his chairmanship to the foreign policy experts who followed him as Carter’s Middle East negotiator. For many years, he gave annual chili parties in his Watergate apartment for working reporters, big-name columnists and bureau chiefs.
During the Reagan years, Nancy Reagan consulted him, along with other so-called wise men, during the Iran-Contra scandal before forcing the ouster of Donald Regan as chief of staff.
His most surprising role came when the first President Bush named him ambassador to the Soviet Union amid the turmoil after its empire collapsed. He wanted an envoy he could trust.
Strauss was overseas when Bill Clinton beat Bush and never got close to the Clintons. Later, Al Gore, to his detriment, never sought Strauss’ advice.
But the man who beat Gore recognized his stature in Washington. Soon after his election, George W. Bush invited Bob Strauss to the White House.
Strauss has been generally dismayed at what he has seen in the ensuing years and, entering his ninth decade on Earth, is pleased that Democrats will benefit.