A blog devoted to the actors and public policy issues involved in the 1998 District of Columbia Court of Appeals decision in Freedman v. D.C. Department of Human Rights, an employment discrimination case.
What did your family do when you were growing up? Were there
politicians in your family?
Robert Strauss: No, no, no. I grew up in two little towns in West Texas.
One was called Hamlin, Texas and the other was called Stamford,
Texas. My father was an impoverished small merchant in a community
of 2,000 to 3,000 people, in the Depression.
What did he sell?
Robert Strauss: He had sort of a general store. He had a piano to
sell, or he had khaki pants to sell. He had ladies shoes or whatever
you wanted -- a general mercantile store.
And your mother?
Robert Strauss: She worked in the store with him. She was the
business person of the family. My father was at heart a musician,
but he didn't have an opportunity to pursue it, or he wasn't good
enough. My mother was born in Texas, in Hempstead, Texas.
My father was a German immigrant who came to this country
when he was about 20 years old. My father was selling pianos then,
and my mother was helping her father in his little store in a town
called Lockhart, Texas, where I was born. My parents were
married, and my father was traveling, trying to sell pianos out of
the San Antonio area in South Texas. When I was about a year
old, my grandfather backed my father and mother so they could
open a little store, and they traveled around and decided to open
one in West Texas, instead of South Texas where I was born.
Lockhart is over near Austin, Texas. The little towns I lived in,
Hamlin, Texas and Stamford, Texas, were near Abilene, which
is Northwest Texas. We moved there when I was about a year old.
Was it a big family?
Robert Strauss: No. Then, it was just me. I was the only child.
My brother Ted is seven years younger. We lived in Hamlin for
a number of years and then moved 20 miles over to Stamford,
Texas. I guess Stamford, Texas had close to 3,000 people, and
Hamlin had about 1,500 people, so they left Hamlin and moved
to the city of 3,000.
What kind of school did you go to?
Robert Strauss: I went to the only school they had in town,
which was a public school, and I guess I got a pretty good
education. I got all I wanted.
Were you a good student?
Robert Strauss: Terrible. I don't think I was stupid. I never really
studied much. I never had a great interest. As a matter of fact,
I never had intellectual interests as I was growing up, and I was
not a good student going through school and through law school.
I was always in the bottom half of the class instead of one of the stars.
I used to envy people who had intellectual interests that I
didn't have and who had intellectual competence or academic
competence in areas I didn't have. It wasn't until I was much
older, in my twenties -- after I got my law degree and was
even practicing law -- that I realized that while most of the
people that I went through school with could write a better
legal brief than I could write, or could draw better documents
than I would prepare, but the strange thing was the clients
came to me instead of them. I learned along the way that I had
judgment, and that I had a certain character and integrity that
attracted people. I had a warm personality. I liked people,
they liked me. I learned then that instead of sitting around,
envying people who had strengths I didn't have, that I ought
to play to my own strengths and quit being paranoid about
these other people. I used to resent the fact that they could
do those things. Later, I came to realize that they had their
strengths, which were certainly valuable and of great value
to them, but I had strengths that seemed to attract people
who not only wanted a lawyer who understood the law, but
they wanted someone who had judgment, and who they
could trust and who they felt had integrity. Those were my
strengths, and I would play to them. So I quit worrying about
others and played to my own strengths and didn't worry
about my weaknesses. I have had continued success once
I came to grips with that, and was at peace with my
strengths and not disturbed by my weaknesses.
The character that you refer to, and your ability to inspire
trust, has taken you into the confidence of more than one
president. Where do you suppose that talent for people
Robert Strauss: I have said many times to my children and
grandchildren that my father was a poor businessman and
never accumulated any amount of money whatsoever, but
he left my brother and me great strength, and one of the
great strengths was our ability to like people, and the
personality that attracted people and attracted their confidence.
I think that has had everything to do with my success in politics
and other things. Whenever I have worked with people in the
political game, I have been successful, and it isn't because I
was the smartest politician around, but I was certainly one of the
most reliable ones.
You said you were a terrible student, but did you like to read?
Robert Strauss: Oh yes, I loved to read, but I didn't read very
many worthwhile things. People now are too young to
remember Tom Swift, or to remember Tom Sawyer and
Huckleberry Finn. Those are the kinds of things that I read
growing up. I couldn't get enough of them, and I can remember
the marvelous stories that were in The Saturday Evening Post.
I couldn't wait for it to come every week, so we could read
the fiction story that was in there or the novel that was in
there. Sometimes it was continued from week to week, other
times it was in one issue. So I read, and I read newspapers.
When I was 12, 13, 14 years old, I read the paper regularly.
Today, I guess I read four papers a day, maybe five or six.
That comes from a habit of my early youth of enjoying
reading current stories. I never was as interested in history
as many of my friends, but I was always more interested in
the current than they were. So you can have chocolate or
vanilla; I chose one flavor.
What newspapers do you read today?
Robert Strauss: I read The Washington Post to begin with,
and then I read The New York Times, and then I read The
Wall Street Journal, and then I read The Dallas Morning
News, because I want to know what's happening in my home
state of Texas. About two or three times a week, I read the
Los Angeles Times, because I like to keep in touch with
what's going on on the West Coast, and know what the
editorials are dealing with there, as well as on the East Coast
where I now live. So I cover the waterfront. I read the
Financial Times sporadically, once or twice a week.
When you've read The New York Times and The
Washington Post, it doesn't take long to read these other
papers; you go through them pretty fast.
When you were a student, were there any teachers
that helped or inspired you?
Robert Strauss: No, I don't think so. I liked most of my
teachers, and most of them liked me. I don't think any of
them particularly inspired me. I don't think I was inspired.
What about other people, growing up?
Robert Strauss: My mother was the major inspiration
in my life, not my father. I got along with him well, but
he was not very strong. My mother was strong and kind,
and I guess we never had a cross word. She used to
worry that I was studying too much, and my father
used to say, "Good God Almighty! How can you say
he's studying too much? He never does anything but
run around, and he makes terrible grades, and you
tell him not to study so much." And her answer
would be, "Well, you know, if he starts worrying
about his grades, he'll get an ulcer, and I don't want
him to lose his health. He's got such a long life ahead
of him, and he's going into politics and diplomacy."
So she had already begun to carve out -- that's the
inspiration I had. Instead of a teacher, it was my mother.
So she saw a talent for politics when you were quite young.
Robert Strauss: Very early.
I came from a Jewish family, and my parents lived,
as I said, in West Texas, and I had a grandmother who
lived in Forth Worth, and on one of the high holidays
in the fall, the family would all come to Fort Worth,
and we would spend a day or so with my grandmother,
who came from Germany and who was very German --
in fact, we called her grossmama not "grandmother."
But when they would gather around there, my mother
would always say, "My son Bobby is going to be a
diplomat, and he's going into politics, and he'll be the
first Jewish Governor of the State of Texas." I can
remember being 14 years old, 12, 13 years old maybe,
in that age, and walking into the room, and one of my
uncles would say, "Well, here comes the Governor,"
and they would all laugh, and I could have killed the
sonofabitches. But my mother ignored them totally.
She would just smile. And she wasn't far wrong;
I had a successful political career.
Did she live to see your career blossom?
Robert Strauss: Not near enough, no. My father outlived her.
That's one of my great regrets, that they didn't live to see me
become Chairman of the Democratic Party, because I was
a very successful chairman. She would have liked the
publicity I had for rebuilding the Democratic Party after
McGovern was defeated so badly. We pulled the party
together and elected a president. They didn't see any of that.
That's a shame. You had heard your mother talk
about your political talents. Did you feel attracted
to politics as soon as you did get involved?
Robert Strauss: Oh, I always knew that I liked politics
very much. In my second year at the University of Texas,
I worked for a fellow who was running for office.
Who was that?
Robert Strauss: A fellow named Travis B. Dean
was running for the world's worst job, that's being a
member of the Texas legislature in the '30s. It was not
a very distinguished group. But he had about $120 a
month in patronage, and he told me he would give me
half of it if he got elected, which would be $60 a month.
It was a fortune! And he got elected to the legislature,
so he had $120 to pass around, and I thought I was
going to get 60 of it, but I ended up with a third of the
patronage, with $40 of it a month, but that was a lot
of money, and I didn't have to do really any work.
It was sort of a scam, his patronage to hand out,
and I was happy to participate in it. So that $40 a
month came in handy. I had that job for two or three
years: Committee Clerk in the Texas legislature. You
won't see it in my résumés very often, because I'm not
quite as proud of that. Maybe I ought to be.
How did you first meet Lyndon Johnson?
Robert Strauss: When I was in the University of Texas
in 1937, Lyndon Johnson ran for Congress in the seat
of a man named Buchanan, Congressman Buchanan,
who died in office, and they had a special election.
Roosevelt was president. And I idolized Roosevelt,
who I had never met, but I read every word about
him, and he captured my imagination. Things were
so deplorable, and the Depression was so serious and
severe that he came along, and he was about the only
light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, to use a cliché.
And he captured my imagination, and when Johnson
ran for Congress, he had a pretty simple platform:
"I'm for Franklin Roosevelt. Whatever he's for, I'm
for." There were a bunch of people in that race, and
he was not supposed to have too much chance to win
it; he was an underdog. But he just ran and ran and ran
on Roosevelt and got elected. I was attracted to his
campaign then, and I was in the University of Texas
undergraduate school -- as a matter of fact, I volunteered
to help him one day -- they asked me if I'd take some
circulars over to Lockhart from Austin, Texas, about
30 or 40 miles. I drove over to Lockhart, which is the
little town I had been born in, and handed out circulars,
and those circulars said: "Come hear Lyndon Baines
Johnson speak on behalf of his candidacy for Congress,"
so-and-so and so forth, "Four o'clock p.m., Lockhart
Square." And that was my first involvement with Lyndon
After you worked for LBJ's campaign, did you ever
turn back? Did you ever think that you would want to get
out of politics?
Robert Strauss: No, no. I liked it, and I was good at it, and I had
I was in a law school class that had a number of successful
politicians in it, one of whom was John Connally, who became
Governor of Texas and was a very able fellow and one of the
most attractive men I've ever known in public life. He and I
developed a friendship -- not a close friendship then -- a
casual friendship. He was a year or two older than me.
He came from South Texas, a poor boy from there; I came
from West Texas, a poor boy from there. But we kind of hit
it off, and we never lost that friendship until the day he died.
He was estranged from the Democratic Party. He quit it to
switch to the Republican Party. The only argument we ever
had was over that, and I thought it was a mistake and still do.
Growing up as a Jew in a small town in Texas, did you
Robert Strauss: No, I don't think so, and I probably wouldn't have
When you're the only Jewish family in a little town, there's
no reason for people to be anti-Semitic. There weren't
enough of us, we didn't threaten anyone. My mother, again,
had absolutely convinced me and my brother Ted that we were
God's chosen people. I was sort of embarrassed by the fact
that I was chosen by God and couldn't tell anybody about it.
It was too embarrassing. But I used to walk around and feel
kind of sorry for those poor bastards that weren't chosen by
God as I was. How she got that done... We never had any
religious training. We never belonged to a temple or a
synagogue. We had absolutely no religious training.
I don't suppose there was a synagogue if you were the
only Jewish family in town.
Robert Strauss: No, there wasn't. There wasn't one within 30 miles.
I think eventually, they got a little one in Abilene, which is 40 miles
away, but we didn't have anything to do with it. We would go
over to Forth Worth, on the high holidays, and then I would go
to one service occasionally with my mother. My father didn't
even go to that. My mother felt her Judaism very, very much and
wanted us to feel it, but she didn't worry about the fact that we
didn't have it. I guess she thought we would acquire it. She gave
me a feel for it, and it stood me in good stead. I think I had
adequate balance. I ended up being President of the Reform
Congregation -- one of the largest in the country -- in Dallas,
Texas. I think it would have shocked a lot of people I met
along the way growing up that I ended up head of a congregation.
That wasn't because I contributed much to religious study or
Judaism. They needed someone as head of the congregation
who people had confidence in, and who had some leadership
qualities. For what it was worth, that's what I did. I'm not sure
they made a good choice, but I spent a year or two as
president of that congregation. I didn't go to the services,
I might add, which was sort of embarrassing with the rabbi.
How did you come to join the FBI?
Robert Strauss: I got out of law school, and there was a
looming world war, and people were looking for things
to do that were better than being a private in the army,
and I was in that group. A fellow named Maurice Acers,
who was an important executive at the FBI, was
recruiting agents just about the time I was graduating
from law school. He came to Austin and said he was
going to recommend I think it was two people out of
our class, and I guess about a third of us or maybe more
went in for interviews, and lo and behold, even though
my grades were poor, I was the one he selected. And I
don't know why, it was not on my grades. I do know why.
It's because in the interview, I did better than I guess most
of the others. And I don't know why that happened, except
those same strengths I was talking about came into play.
I can still remember the question he asked me: "What one
thing would be most significant, do you think, of
importance to you in your life as you move through life?"
And I remember thinking a second and saying, "I think
I'd like to feel when I get old..." -- and I was thinking it
would be maybe 60, 65 years old -- "...that I had made
some kind of difference in a positive way in my life."
And he said, "On what scale?" I said, "I don't think
scale makes any difference. I'd like to think I contributed
in a positive way to influencing somebody or influencing
some idea." And I said, "I never thought of that before,
so this answer may sound foolish," and he said, "On the
contrary, it sounds very sensible." And he dropped it,
and we went on, and later on when I was talking to
him, he said, "Bob, I'll tell you exactly why. You
answered this question the way you did, and it impressed me."
So again, that had nothing to do with my intellectual competence or
incompetence as the case might be, but a good deal to do with my
judgment and my ability to relate to situations and people. You
just have to figure out what your strengths are and not worry
about your weaknesses, and play to them and utilize them,
and I have done that.
You were in Dallas on the day President Kennedy was
killed, and you were very close to John Connally, who
was also wounded that day. Could you tell us about that
day? Did you participate in the President's trip to Texas?
Robert Strauss: To back up a little, John Connally called me
from Washington. He called me before he went up, and he
said, "Kennedy wants to see me, Bob." When Kennedy
called him to Washington, Johnson was Vice President, and
Kennedy didn't even tell Johnson that he had called John
Connally up to have him plan a trip to Texas. Connally
didn't want the President to come to Texas, because he
was coming down to do the one thing we needed to do.
I was in charge of Connally's fundraising. The Texas people
knew that I raised money for him. Connally called from up
there before he went back home and said, "Bob, Kennedy
is coming to Texas, and he's going to raise money here."
Did Connally think it was going to compete with his
Robert Strauss: Connally knew they were coming to raise
And he didn't want to compete with the President?
Robert Strauss: Exactly. Furthermore, John Connally wasn't
anxious to have Kennedy in the state. He wasn't that popular.
Texas was a difficult place, and Connally was in a different
mode. He was Johnson's man, not Kennedy's man.
The whole thing was a montage of conflicting interests.
When we planned the trip, Connally said, "Valenti and
Singleton and Albert Thomas," who was a congressman,
"will handle the various things in Houston, and you take care
of Dallas and get two or three other people involved."
He mentioned Cassidy. So we planned in Dallas a luncheon,
this is what the Kennedy people wanted. Bobby Kennedy
sent down a woman named Elizabeth Forsling -- I'll never
forget her name -- who was a very nice lady, and I liked
her very much. Still living, I think, in New York. She was
representing Bobby Kennedy and the White House in Dallas,
and I was representing the Governor's interest in Dallas,
so she and I had a good deal to do with the planning of that
event. If I live to be 110, I'll not forget that when we were
planning that trip, two Secret Service fellows were talking to
the head of the Chamber of Commerce -- I think it was a fellow
named Bob Cullum -- and he said to the two of us, "Now
what about the luncheon? What kind of hall would you pick
to have it in?" And he was going over the various sites and
planning where the audience would sit, and where the head
table would be, and whether the President would be above
or below, and he was explaining to us, "He needs to be
above the crowd." And he asked some question about the
planning of that event, where it should be, and I said, "
Fellow, I'll tell you, I know a lot of things, I think, but one
thing I don't know a damn thing about is presidential security.
That, you fellows have to plan." Cullum may have said it first,
but together we said that. He and I discussed it later. Thank
goodness we both said that we don't know anything about
presidential security. But that was the trip, of course, where
the President lost his life. I was at the luncheon, waiting for
that group to arrive.
I was not involved in the Chamber of Commerce or the
Citizens' Council, which is a group of establishment people.
I was never much of an establishment fellow in Dallas.
That's the reason I got into national politics, because I
had political interests, but my political interests were I
wanted to be on the City Council representing the business
establishment. I didn't want to be a radical on the outside.
The trouble is they didn't want me. They didn't need young,
up-and-coming Jewish lawyers getting into any leadership role
there. And they were pretty effective; I didn't.
When Connally considered running for Governor, I was one of
the two people who came to Washington and talked to the fact
that we could elect him. I knew that he wanted to be Governor.
He had talked to me about trying to be Senator earlier. But along
with others, I helped talk John into doing something he was born
to do anyway, be in elective office, and that's where I got going
out of Dallas. So when we elected him Governor, I came in over
the top of the Dallas establishment instead of trying to go through
them. I knew I couldn't do that. After John Connally got elected
Governor, people were crazy about him. He was so attractive,
and he had not gone so far to the right then. He was right in the
middle, and I thought it would elect him president. I still think it
could have if he had stayed a Democrat.
I vividly remember that he asked me when he got elected
Governor -- well, the Governor has no power, but he has
appointments, he can appoint you to different things -- and
he asked me what I wanted, and I said, "Well, I don't want
anything, Governor. I know you don't want to appoint me
to the Board of Regents because you have been speaking
on the fact that we've got to get rid of cronyism on that
board, and I couldn't agree with you more. I think you
ought to appoint some people not like me who would
be considered your voice there. I share your view, and
that's the only thing I would want. I love the University
of Texas, and I'd like to be a Regent, but this would be
the wrong time," and he wouldn't do it if I had wanted it.
I said, "There is one thing I want," and he said, "What's
that?" I said, "Well, when you start appointing those judges
and filling these commissions and when people out of the
Dallas establishment come to call on you, just listen to them
and say, 'Well, I've got your suggestions now, and I'm
certainly going to consider them, and I'll discuss it with
Bob Strauss the first chance I get, and you'll hear from
him or me." And he started laughing, and he said, "Are
you kidding?" And I said, "That's all I want, John. Just
say, 'Well, I want to discuss it with Strauss.'" Of course,
nothing could have pleased me more, and I was so vain,
anyway, about it and annoyed with them for ten years
or more of what I thought was neglect or abuse or
whatever you'd call it. They really were nice people,
they just didn't care for me. It wasn't mutual. I was
ready to join the crowd, but the crowd didn't want
me, to be very blunt about it. But Connally did that
a couple times, and that's all I needed, and I liked it.
It made the whole thing worthwhile.
How did you hear the news that the President and
Governor Connally had been shot? Were you at the
hall waiting for the Chamber of Commerce crowd?
Robert Strauss: Yes. A fellow with the highway patrol came
up. I was sitting with Cliff Cassidy, who was a young
businessman there who was deeply involved with Connally
and me. I had introduced Connally to Cassidy, and Connally
had appointed him head of the Department of Public Safety.
The patrolman came up and said to the two of us, "There
has been an accident. There has been a shooting, and we
think the President has been hit, and we don't know how
serious, and we think Governor Connally may have been hit."
And I said, or he said, "Let's go to the hospital," and we left
that lunch. Helen was there, and I left her and went to the
hospital, and when I got there, Nellie Connally was standing
in the hallway, and as I came in, a fellow named Cliff
Carter, who was on Johnson's staff, came rushing up to
me and said, "Bob, Kennedy's dead. He's dead." He just
said, "I can't believe it. He's dead." And he said,
"Johnson's president. I can't believe the power..."
The whole thing was -- we were in shock.
And he said, "They just rushed Johnson to the airport."
And I said, "Where is Mrs. Kennedy?" and he said,
"She and Nellie Connally are at such-and-such a place."
When I rushed there, Nellie was standing outside of the
operating room, leaning against the wall. She had been
in a private room, and had just stepped out, and she was
sobbing kind of quietly, so I talked with her.
I then called Helen, who had gotten home by then, or
shortly thereafter, and I said, "Honey, this is so incredible."
I said, "There are mobs of these people, friends of ours
and people connected with Kennedy or Johnson, who are
wandering around in a daze, just like I am," and I said,
"I think I'll just tell them to come to our house tonight.
Most of them don't even have rooms. They hadn't planned
on staying here, some of them." And she said, "Good."
And I said, "Why don't you get 50 or 60 steaks" -- we
had an inside grill -- "get about 50 or 60 small strips.
And be sure you have a lot of booze, we're going to
need it." And I guess we had an Irish wake in a Jewish
home that night, because a lot of the press came by, and
a lot of Johnson's and some of Kennedy's friends came
by, and our friends, people from around the state who
were in town and heard about it word-of-mouth. I told
people, "Just tell everybody our house will be open."
And we must have had 100 people coming and going,
maybe 150, that night, and it was a tremendous, a
terribly tremendous night.
How did Lyndon Johnson handle this shocking development?
Robert Strauss: He called my law partner, Irving Goldberg,
who was very close to Johnson and Mrs. Johnson. As a matter
of fact, I think he was their lawyer, and Irving had been on his
staff for a while. Johnson called him from the plane, and he
asked Irv, "What do I do about being sworn in? Should I do
it here or there or wait until I get to Washington?" And Irv
was wise enough to say, "You don't need to be sworn in.
You are president, but you ought to be sworn in in a very public
way, where the world will see you, see the power changing,
because they need to know there is continuity here." And
Johnson said, "I agree. Who should do it?" And Irv said,
"I'll get Barefoot." Barefoot Sanders had an Indian name,
but he had also just been appointed U.S. Attorney by
Johnson, "He'll locate Judge Sarah Hughes," who was also
a Johnson appointee. Luckily, they found the right people, and
that's how that all happened. Johnson said to him, "You get
out here for this swearing in," but when he got to the airport
they said, "Oh, you can't go in there." Irv was too shy, and he
didn't throw his weight around or say, "Call the plane, you'll
find out." So he just stayed out and went on back home.
That's the story. A day I'll never forget.
That also changed the dimension of my career to some extent.
My career has been a good one. It hasn't been any meteoric
rise to the top, but it has been a constant rise, one I am proud
of and pleased about and found it terribly rewarding every
day. I have been blessed with the ability to have relationships
on both sides of the aisle. I have been blessed to hold important
responsibilities for both parties. I have been blessed with a
family that is very supportive, and a wife who was interested
in music and art until she had the bad break of running into me,
and found out she had better get interested in politics and public
life because that was my interest. So we found our lives going in
that direction, and she has been very, very good at it and with
me everywhere, as has Vera Murray. She has been with me 32
or 33 years. My secretary here has been with me 25 years,
and the one in Dallas, Marie Phelps, has been with me 35
years, maybe more. I never leave people, and they never
leave me. I don't try to grade up to get better. My people are
good, and they get better, and they don't grade up and leave me
to get something better. So it's a functional group of people,
just as my family is functional.
Tell us more about Lyndon Johnson. He had a famous
temper, I understand.
Robert Strauss: Yes, he had a hell of a temper, but he also had the
ability to be very thoughtful and very nice. Lyndon Johnson never
saw me as a close advisor. If Lyndon Johnson had ten or 12
people to an important meeting to help him make a political decision,
I would not have been in that group of 10 or 12. Had he had 25
people in, I would have made that cut probably. I was never
closer than that to Lyndon Johnson, but people always assumed
I was a fellow who was active in politics, from Texas, and known
to be a Johnson man. The truth of the matter is, I was close to John
Connally, who was our Governor, and he was Johnson's man.
He had worked for him and with him, and Johnson relied on him
for everything. So if I was going to reach Johnson, the best way
to do it would be to have Connally reach him for me. I didn't have
to reach him for anything, but that was my relationship.
Johnson asked me on one occasion when I was at the White
House. He had me up to his residence in the White House,
called my wife and I up there, called us to town. What had
happened was they called and said, "The President wants
to see you tomorrow morning in his bedroom at 7:30," and
I said, "Well, I can't go then. It's Helen's 50th birthday
tomorrow. I'll come the next day." And he said fine and
said, "I'll tell the boss." So he came back on the phone
about five minutes later and said, "The boss says he wants
to see you tomorrow morning around 7:30 in his bedroom,
and bring Helen with you. And he said to tell you to have
her bring an evening dress she can wear in the evening,
and you bring a tux, because..." this fellow said, "...there
are things going on up here. There's a lot of activity, and
apparently the President may include you and Helen in it."
And I said fine, so we trooped up here, and when I got up
there, Lyndon Johnson talked to me about what was going
wrong with the Hubert Humphrey campaign in Texas and
what I ought to do about it. Sort of "or else!" Lyndon
Johnson intimidated me like no one ever had before him and
no one since. I found him the most intimidating human being
I had ever been around. He had my number, and he knew
it and I knew it, so that's a bad combination. But I was
devoted to him, with all his warts, just like everyone who
he touched was. I think he was the most powerful man
in whose company I have been. Everyone had that same
impression. He would overpower you with his personality
and his ability. He was not always right, but he was always effective.
I don't know if you've read any of the Robert Caro books, but he was
an amazing human being, and they tell a lot about him. When I was up
there in his bedroom, as we were finishing our talk about the Humphrey
campaign, he said to me, "Bob, what do you think about my Asia
policy?" He was talking about Vietnam. That was the height of the war,
which ran him out of office, you will recall.
When did this happen?
Robert Strauss: It was October 8th, 1968. I remember it so well,
because Helen's 50th birthday was the 9th.
I told him everything I thought he wanted to hear, not one
word of which did I really believe, and I felt so dirty when I
got through, I swore I'd never do anything like that again
if the Lord would ever forgive me. If the President was ever
dumb enough to ask my advice, I'd do better.
What do you think prompted you to tell him what he wanted
to hear about Vietnam?
Robert Strauss: I think I was intimidated, and I didn't tell him
what he found unappealing. After I left his bedroom and was
telling Helen about it -- my wife, who I've been married to
over 60 years, we're very close, we are inseparable -- I said
to her an hour after I left the bedroom, I felt better that
I didn't do any -- I realized I didn't do any harm, because
Lyndon Johnson didn't really give a damn about what I
thought. He asked me that question because he pretty well
knew I'd tell him what he wanted to hear, I think. So I don't
think I ever had any influence on a decision of Lyndon
Johnson's in my life. I don't kid myself about that. But that's
part of maturing and part of learning and part of growing
up. I have always been sort of ashamed of that, but I feel
better when I tell it publicly, and I have no hesitancy in
doing so, because after that, a number of presidents have
sought my advice. Some of the advice is good and some of
it not so good, and some they took and some they didn't
take, but I'm just vain enough -- and I'm honest enough
to admit my vanity -- that I like the idea that people say
Bob Strauss is a wise man or a fellow who counsels
presidents. Well, of course, both of those are overstated,
but I don't spend any time correcting people.
I don't object to the impression, and I like the fact that my
children and grandchildren read it and hear it, and to a substantial
extent, believe it. I have been blessed with a very functional
family. Too many families are dysfunctional today. I know I've
done something right in my life and that Helen has, because we
have a reasonably good-size family, and it's the most functional
damn family in the world, to stray from the subject.
How many children?
Robert Strauss: Three children and seven grandchildren
and four great-grandchildren. When my grandchildren got to
be teenagers and older, and they would come by for a beer
with me when I was trying to rest at night, I used to say, "Don't
you have any home? Doesn't anybody ever ask you for a date?
Why don't you quit hanging around here?" And they would laugh,
and I would laugh. It's a great relationship.
Did any of them go into politics?
Robert Strauss: No, no. Nobody in my family went into politics,
although I have a grandson who is called Rob Strauss, and I think
he will. He's fooled around in politics, and he's pretty good at it.
I think he'll end up doing something politically; I hope so. I think
politics needs nice people, decent people, and he is that. He is
also sensible enough to not get too cynical over the weaknesses.
Jimmy Carter must have looked like an unlikely presidential
candidate when he began the race, but he made it. What did
you do to make that happen?
Robert Strauss: I didn't do anything. I'd like to take credit for it.
Jimmy Carter did that himself with a couple of people who really
helped him. One was Hamilton Jordan and the other was Jody
Powell primarily, although he had an older friend, Charles Kirbo,
who was a great help, and Bert Lance, another friend of his from
Georgia. I was chairman of the campaign, but keep in mind I was
Chairman of the Democratic Party when he got the nomination.
Before he got the nomination, I was neutral, I wasn't for him. I had
to be neutral, and I think the Carter people sort of resented my
neutrality once they got there.
Jimmy Carter and I didn't have that close a relationship until
I guess in New York, we had the convention, and people
wondered why I went to New York. I knew exactly why I took
the party there. It was a place we had to win, and Madison
Square Garden, even though it was too small, was the right
place to be. So I called those shots right, and at the Convention,
the Carter people -- the President and Mrs. Carter and their
people, of course, he wasn't president then -- found out that
they didn't know how to run a national convention and that
I did, and we didn't make any mistakes, fortunately, like the
Democrats usually do. I didn't let them fall apart in the
middle of the damned convention and tear each other up. I
controlled the floor, where the leftists or the rightists, depending,
couldn't get their hands on the mikes, and we kept it moderate,
and we elected a president. Then Jimmy Carter and I became,
as I went into his administration, closer and closer, and I guess
by the end of it, he called on me for everything. And I again --
part of the story I told today about how I grew in stature in
his administration -- went in with no particular stature and
came out as probably the fellow he turned to more than any
other for tough jobs.
How did you become trade negotiator during the Carter
Robert Strauss: I told President Carter's people and him that
I didn't want to go into his administration. I had been out
seven years as Treasurer and Chairman of the Democratic
Party, and after he had been in a couple of months,
Hamilton Jordan called and said, "The President wants to
talk to you and wants you to come over here. He's going to
ask you to take the trade job." And I had looked at it with
some favor. A reporter, writer Joe Kraft, a very able man,
had convinced me that maybe I ought to consider that job
if it wasn't filled, because it suited me. It was international,
and it had no bureaucracy. You could steer it and move it
and turn it and twist it, and you couldn't do it in these other
departments. That's one of the things he knew; I didn't want
to get involved in any bureaucracy. And Carter didn't want
me to have one of his more important portfolios anyway, even
if I had wanted it, so I wouldn't have been Secretary of
Treasury or Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense.
As a matter of fact, the present Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld,
recommended to Carter that he make me Secretary of Defense.
I don't think that recommendation meant much to Carter and it
certainly didn't to me, but I appreciated it.
Carter was in some ways a fluke, because Jimmy Carter didn't like
politics. Never did and still doesn't. But he is a marvelous man and
a wonderful man, and I feel very close to him.
What happened the second time he ran?
Robert Strauss: Carter insisted on doing things in the first term
that he shouldn't do. For example, we never should have tried to
pass the Panama Canal bill the first term. That's a second term
thing, because you take a lot of scars on that. We leaned on everybody
terribly hard to get those votes and get that done and did it by one
vote, and we pushed people and pushed them in ways they didn't
want to be and made them vote for it, the Democrats. Carter felt
strongly that he had committed to do it and he was going to do it,
and even though Hamilton and Jody and I also encouraged him
to let that sit for the second term. But he did things like that, and
Jimmy Carter didn't want to do the political things that he
needed to do. He wanted to do substantive things that are
worthwhile, the same way he is right now. He has never changed
and is never going to. I have given up trying to change him. I
talk to him with some regularity and am very close to him and
very proud of it.
Do you think he was too substantive to win reelection?
Robert Strauss: I think that had something to do with it, and he also
was not political enough.
I would talk to him about how he ought to have Senator Russell
Long upstairs and "Talk to him about your economic program,
and he'll get your tax bill out, and he can do this and that ..."
but Carter didn't like to do that. But he would call frequently
at 6:15 in the morning, and he always had the same question:
"Are you drunk or sober?" And I'd say, "Well, I've just come
in about half an hour ago, Mr. President, but I've had a cold
shower and I am reasonably sober. What's on your mind?"
And he'd laugh and say, "Well, on my mind is I want you to
drop by here." So I'd go over there, get there at 7:00, and
he'd be in his little office off the Oval Office, been working
or an hour or two, and he'd have that little handwriting of
his, and he'd have some issue he wanted to discuss. He was
very substantive, but it was terribly difficult to get him to do
the political things.
Rosalynnn was very good at political things. She grew into it. I
saw her at first as a wife with a little housedress on, but she became
a very sophisticated, worthwhile First Lady. They are substantive
people. They have no room for small talk. But...
Carter did have a sense of humor. He always liked for me to
introduce him. I found out there was a sense of humor there,
because he didn't know how to warm a crowd up, and people,
of course, did make these pompous introductions. And when
I would introduce him, I would say, "The next speaker is the
President of the United States. Now, I'm no fool. I know that
you're not supposed to dress as well as the man you're
introducing, particularly if it is the distinguished President.
And I'll tell you, I have tried to dress worse than this President,
but there's no way in the world I could dress worse than he
does." And the crowd would roar, and he would laugh, and
he'd get up and speak, or I would say, "Now, when the next
speaker gets up, please don't look at his ankles, because they'll
be showing -- because his pants are too short for him -- but
I can't get him to buy a new pair of pants." And the crowd
would roar. That kind of humor as well as putting some serious
things in there. But he liked that, and people would say,
"God, how can you say that about the President?" and I
would say, "Well, it just takes guts." The truth of the matter
is, Carter liked it. He would say to his people when he was
going into town to speak, "Tell the Mayor to speak and then let
Strauss introduce me," because I would use that humor.
I was the warm-up act.
Since leaving office, Jimmy Carter seems to have grown
in stature. Has it surprised you to see what a statesman he
Robert Strauss: I told Carter, after he got beat, that he was going
into the greatest job in the world, when he learned how to do it
properly, the most marvelous job, and it was perfect for him, and
he looked at me as if I was out of my mind. I said, "Being a young
ex-president who cares about the country and wants to make a
difference, you have the greatest opportunity anybody could have."
He has come to realize that, that I was right, and he enjoys it.
Interestingly, when he got the Nobel Peace Prize -- I called his
home. I waited until 7:00. I had heard on the radio at 6:00 that
they had called him at 4:30, so I thought maybe he had gone
back to sleep. And I called there at 7:00 or quarter to 7:00,
down in that little town he lives in, and Rosalynn answered the
phone. I said, "Rosalynn, could I speak to the President? It's
just wonderful," I said. She said, "It is wonderful." And I said,
"Could I speak to him, or is he just too tired?" She said, "Bob,
he's out doing something." I said, "Doing what?" She said, "I
don't know. He said he had some things he wanted to get done
this morning." So he went about his business after he got that call.
Robert Strauss: Doing errands, some things he had to get done.
That was Jimmy Carter, both his strength and his weakness, I guess.
But he is, people acknowledge, the greatest living ex-president, and
always has been. Interestingly, he and Gerry Ford have become so
close, they are really devoted friends, not just casual friends.
You also had a close relationship to the Reagans, which
might surprise people because of your long association
with the Democratic Party.
Robert Strauss: Yes. You'll remember we had the Iran Contra
controversy of trading arms for hostages. One day in the middle
of Ronald Reagan's second term I got a call from Mike Deaver,
and he said, "The Reagans would like you to come up and talk to
them tonight about the difficulties the President's having, growing
out of Iran Contra and what you think of it, and what he ought to
do." And I said, "Well Deaver, do they want to hear the truth or
not, because I'm not interested in going up there." As a matter of
fact, I told him a story that I've told you earlier about telling Lyndon
Johnson everything I thought he wanted to hear, not one word of
which I believed, and I learned my lesson on that. And he said,
"Well, Mrs. Reagan wants him to hear the truth, and she thinks
he's not hearing it. She thinks you'll tell him the truth. You know
the truth and you'll tell him. She doesn't know anybody else who
will, because they're all telling him what they want him to hear
and what he wants to hear, that there's nothing to these stories."
People were saying his Chief of Staff, Donald Regan was
part of the problem, but he didn't want to fire him. They
were close weren't they?
Robert Strauss: They were very close. He liked Don Regan,
and Don Regan was his Chief of Staff, of course. So...
I went up there that night and met Deaver, and we went
through the tunnel. We met in the Treasury Department, in
Jim Baker's office, because they didn't want (the press) to see
me coming into the White House. And another gentleman was
along who was a prominent Republican. It is unimportant his
name now, but he had been a very important Republican and
was close to Don Regan and the Reagans. So they had the two
of us up. I didn't expect anybody else to be there, but we got
upstairs and walked through that long tunnel, as I said, which
is still outfitted, I guess, like from World War II. It still has
bunks on the wall, and it looks like food and canned things
there and life preservers, all kinds of communications stuff.
And you go through about four doublelocked doors, and the
Secret Service and I don't know what else, military people,
let you through those doors. It's impressive. Well, I got up
there, and it was just Deaver and the President and Mrs.
Reagan and this other person and me.
And this was in their bedroom?
Robert Strauss: It was in their sitting room, right off their bedroom,
in the small living quarters the President has up there. Not so
small, but not very spacious, either. We got into this discussion,
and the President started off by -- it took him about 20 minutes
to tell his side of that and how there was nothing to these stories
and how wrong they were. And he turned to this other fellow
and said, "I trust you agree?" and he said, "Mr. President, I
sure do. I think the press is blowing this all up. Eisenhower
had his U2 problems, and they blew over, and Truman had
his scandal problems, and they blew over, and this will blow
over. All you need to do is hold your fire and hang in there."
And the President turned to me and said, "I trust you agree,
Bob?" I said, "As a matter of fact, I couldn't disagree more."
After gulping a couple times, I said -- I told that story about
the Lyndon Johnson experience -- and I said, "Before I came
up here tonight, I asked Deaver if he wanted to hear the truth.
The truth of the matter was Deaver's answer to me was..."
-- I hadn't told it before -- "He said, 'She wants him to hear it.
I don't know whether he wants to hear it or not, but she wants
him to hear the truth.'"