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A force of nature [Commentary]

Former Democratic National Chairman Robert S. Strauss, who passed away Wednesday at a robustly lived 95, was a happy political warrior whose talent and energies took him far afield from his chosen playground, even to Moscow where he served as the first American ambassador after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He was a rare combination of straight-talker and schmoozer who endeared himself to friend and foe alike, to the point that when he left Russia in 1993, he was given a huge vodka-flowing reception at the Russian Embassy in Washington.

But his first loves were politics in general and the Democratic Party in particular. Long an effective fund-raiser, particularly in his native Texas, Strauss was a volunteer in the first campaign for Congress of a little-known supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt named Lyndon B. Johnson.

After service as a lawyer in the FBI during World War II, he helped found an influential law firm in Dallas and eventually became wealthy as the head of a Texas broadcasting and real estate enterprise. A college classmate of a governor-to-be, John B. Connally, Strauss helped elect him and was rewarded with a position on the state banking board.

In Texas, Strauss played a role in moderating intraparty squabbling that in 1963 had brought President John F. Kennedy to Dallas (where he was assassinated, elevating Lyndon Johnson, JFK's vice president, to the presidency).

In 1966, Connally gave Strauss his first major entree into national Democratic politics as a Democratic national committeeman, and in 1970 he was named the party's national treasurer. Upon its humiliating defeat in the 1972 presidential campaign, in which Republican President Richard Nixon trounced the Democratic nominee, Sen. George S. McGovern, Strauss took over the national chairmanship.

He proceeded to restore the party's financial health and played another prominent role in the 1976 presidential election of Democrat Jimmy Carter, a long shot who rode public outrage over the Watergate scandal that had driven Nixon from the White House in 1974. Through all this, Strauss, though a distinct partisan, managed through a sunny disposition and a reputation of fairness to maintain friendships on both sides of the political aisle.

He even quietly entertained thoughts of running for the presidency himself, but settled for bipartisan comity to the point that it was a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, who nominated him in 1991 as American ambassador to the Soviet Union. Strauss established good relations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his successor Boris Yeltsin during the tense period following the Soviet Union's dissolution.

Upon his return home, Strauss resumed his standing as a shrewd, zestful player in the political game, in the process becoming one of the most highly admired as well as entertaining figures on the Washington scene. He was a particular favorite of members of the press corps here who willingly entered into a mutual admiration society with him.

He and his wife, Helen, a full partner in his political as well as social life in the city, held annual Christmas parties at his Watergate apartment attended by both critics and patsies in the journalism world. He reveled in exchanging biting barbs with them that, in the motto of the exclusive Gridiron Club of prominent reporters, editors and commentators, singed but never burned.

On the occasion of Strauss' elevation as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, I was at my desk at the old Washington Star when my phone rang. The caller triumphantly announced: "This is Strauss! I'm calling you from the back seat of a new black limousine just to remind you what an important man I am! So I expect to get more respect from you from now on!"

He loved to remind one and all that he was "one rich sumbitch" from Texas, and the calls would come from his office, his sumptuous home in Dallas, or from one or another racetrack, usually in Southern California, where he always purported to have made another killing. And you always called him "Strauss," or occasionally "Bob" — never Mr. Chairman or Mr. Ambassador, though he often gleefully reminded you that he was both. What a character. What a force of human nature.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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