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In brief: Former Democratic chairman, dealmaker Strauss dies at 95

Thu., March 20, 2014

WASHINGTON – Bob Strauss could work with anybody – Democrats and Republicans, Americans and Soviets, Israelis and Arabs. Playing the game and making the deal made his day.

Of Strauss’ many accomplishments – earning a fortune in postwar investments, co-founding an international law firm, leading the Democratic Party as chairman, running one successful presidential campaign and surviving the loss of another – being welcome on either side of the political street might have been the achievement he most treasured.

A Strauss specialty was what he called “the art of making things happen instead of just tilting at windmills.” A little sign he had kept on his desk put it succinctly: “It CAN be done.”

“He is absolutely the most amazing politician,” former first lady Barbara Bush wrote of the prominent Democratic powerbroker who died Wednesday at 95. “He is everybody’s friend and, if he chooses, could sell you the paper off your own wall.”

President Ronald Reagan sought Strauss’ advice when his administration was embroiled in the Iran-Contra affair. President George H.W. Bush turned to him when he needed an ambassador to the Soviet Union to represent American interests as the communist country fell apart – and when the Russian Federation took its place.

Years earlier, President Jimmy Carter had relied on Strauss, the son of an immigrant German Jew, as his personal representative during Israeli-Arab peace talks. When Carter’s re-election bid drew opposition even among Democrats, the president brought Strauss home to make the peace in the Democratic Party.

If anyone could calm an intraparty storm, it was the quick-witted and gregarious Washington insider with a soft Texas drawl who seemed to know everyone who mattered.

“Bob Strauss may have cut his teeth in the brass knuckle and highly partisan political fields of Texas politics,” George H.W. Bush said in a statement released Wednesday, “but he counseled several presidents of the United States of both parties – and like the others, I valued his advice highly.”

For years Strauss moved easily in Washington’s political, business and social circles. Mixing outlandish boasts with a self-deprecating humor, he regularly told listeners: “It ain’t braggin’ if you’ve done it.”

Robert S. Strauss was born on Oct. 19, 1918, in Lockhart, Texas. He grew up in Stamford, where his father was a dry goods merchant.

He first dipped into politics while a student at the University of Texas, when he worked on Lyndon B. Johnson’s first congressional campaign. After earning his law degree in 1941, he joined the FBI, where he spent the war years as a roaming special agent.

Possessed of a deft financial touch, the young Strauss purchased radio stations and real estate, parlaying his investments into a multimillion-dollar portfolio by the time he was 45.

Strauss received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, in 1981.

Illinois gay rights activist dies

CHICAGO – Vernita Gray, a gay rights activist who wed her partner in Illinois’ first same-sex marriage, has died at age 65.

Gray died late Tuesday of cancer at the same Chicago home where she married Patricia Ewert in late November, family friend Jim Bennett told the Associated Press. Bennett was among friends who were gathered at the home when Gray died.

Gray’s failing health and her wish to marry persuaded a federal judge to order that an expedited marriage license be granted to the couple ahead of the June 1 effective date of the state’s gay marriage law. A subsequent judge’s ruling then paved the way for more same-sex couples to marry early in some Illinois counties.

Gray worked for gay rights for decades, advocating for same-sex marriage long before many other activists saw it as a possibility, Bennett said. To win over conservatives, she made the case that her Social Security survivor benefits should go to her partner, and her knack for working with people across the political spectrum “made everyone feel that they had a unique contribution to move us forward,” Bennett said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised Gray’s work for equality and civil rights in a statement Wednesday.


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