When Bob Strauss and his brother Ted were young boys growing up in Stamford, Texas, Stamford did not have a rabbi, so their mother Edith decided to engage the rabbi from Wichita Falls to travel to the house to give the boys private lessons in Hebrew and Jewish studies. This arrangement lasted for exactly one visit—though it was not a long visit. Apparently the initially confident rabbi went up to the boys’ room, and about twenty minutes later was offering his flustered goodbyes to Mrs. Strauss as he headed for the door.
It seems that the rabbi had done his best to give a dramatic rendering of the Exodus story to capture the boys’ attention, replete with Moses’s staff, Pharaoh’s chariots and the parting of the Sea. Apparently Bob asked if that were really how it had all happened, and the rabbi assured him it was. At that point, Bob declared his enthusiastic wonderment, the only problem being that he expressed this wonderment with a phrase beginning “Well I’ll be a …” and concluding with some rather colorful language which I shall not quote in these hallowed halls. We don’t know if the rabbi actually quoted Bob back to Mrs. Strauss as he headed for Wichita Falls. We just know that the rabbi never showed up in Stamford again. Leave it to Bob Strauss to one-up the Exodus.
We honor a man today whom neither that rabbi nor this, nor any of us, could ever forget. He could twist an arm or cuss into a phone with the best of them. But we miss him today not only because we miss his irreverence, his sense of humor, his back-room smarts and every-room charm. We miss him because he represented a patriotism that was about solution and resolution—not about partisan posturing and rigid ideologies, but about getting things done for the good of the nation.
He knew and taught that too much emphasis on winners and losers in any deal—in a bank boardroom or on the floor of Congress—would yield stalemate rather than progress, and breed ill will rather than cooperation. He advised his protégés that when they had the upper hand, they should always consider some way to preserve the dignity of the other side—and that when they seemed to be on the short end of a negotiation or a vote, it was always possible to make one more call, to work one more connection, to shore up the relationships that Bob Strauss always understood came first.
He never wanted to paint an opponent into a corner, but as his brother Ted says, he did always seem to be holding the brush. He was a principled pragmatist. Bob Strauss had plenty of dirty words in his vocabulary, but he never regarded compromise as one of them. He was a brilliant strategist who had the mental agility, political horse sense and big-picture perspective to recognize that it’s possible for opposing ideas to have merit.
The rabbi from Wichita Falls may have failed in his mission, but Bob Strauss ended up with some of the Talmud in him, the great sixth century compendium of Jewish law and lore which features multiple perspectives on every page and every problem, and always honors and records minority opinions. A lifelong Democrat who served as wise counselor to decades of U.S. Presidents of both parties, he called himself “a putter-together”—and in today’s climate of toxic political polarization, how urgently we could use his even-keeled savvy and deep sense of service.
He did it all with a relentlessly positive outlook. When asked what he liked most about his life, he famously answered, “The whole damn deal.” He taught his kids that whenever someone asked how they were, they should find a way to answer positively—because nobody wants to be around a complainer, and other people won’t pay attention to your troubles anyway.
But more important, his positive outlook meant that no challenge was too great, no problem too complicated. The greater the obstacle, the more energized he seemed to become. And of course, that positive outlook was part of his magnetism—the same magnetism that got him elected president of the Baptist Young People’s Organization in Stamford, until it was determined that as a Jew, he might not be quite right for the job. It should be noted that Bob also served as a distinguished President of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, where by all accounts he was a much better fit.
But for all his public accomplishments, Bob’s relationships were at the core of his being. He was a remarkably loyal friend, and his family was the heart of his life. He and Ted shared a bond which simply transcends description. There were no two better story-telling brothers in the whole State of Texas—and no two closer brothers anywhere.
He adored Helen, and their six decades of shared love and shared life, shared consultation and shared adventure were a source of the deepest sustenance to him.
Whatever heights he climbed in public prominence, he always made sure his family was along for the ride—from bringing his kids to political conventions to having his family join him on a cruise on Anwar Sadat’s yacht down the Nile; from asking and quoting Helen’s opinion on matters of the day to staying in touch with his children no matter where he or they might be in the world. He said that the money paid for those long distance calls was the best money he ever spent.
How blessed you all are to have Bob Strauss stories be your family stories—from one generation to the next—family stories of love, of laughter, of generosity and the highest moral standards; of integrity and tolerance and living life with a sense of honor and joy. How blessed you are to have all those memories of Del Mar—the beach and the races and the concentric circles of family and all those meals where the chief topic of conversation was what to have for the next meal.
As Bob was more and more limited by illness, in typical straightforward fashion, he let his family know that whenever his time would come, he would be ready. He assured them that he was comfortable and at peace, grateful for the wonderful life he had lived. In good Strauss matter of fact style, he would say, “I’m not hungry and I don’t hurt.” Readiness is all. And Ted may have summed it all up best in these words about his brother: “He loved life and life loved him. It was a good match.”
That Exodus story that Bob Strauss one-upped some eighty years ago in Stamford is the same one we Jews told again at our Passover tables just ten days ago, just as we will tell it again when Passover rolls around next year. We will once again tell the story of the difference a leader can make in people’s lives. We will once again tell the story of resistance to oppression, of the dignity of all people, of the precious gift of freedom. And we will sing, and we will laugh, and of course, we will talk about the food.
So maybe Bob Strauss didn’t need that rabbi from Wichita Falls after all. Maybe he had the story in his heart all along—leadership and dignity and laughter and freedom. The story in his heart that we all carry as people of faith: the reality of injustice, even now; the outcry for freedom, which we pray we might heed in our own day; the passage, never simple, through seas of challenge to the redemption that awaits on the other side.
That horizon of redemption and hope is the promise of this sacred season for us all: Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, Mayflower descendants and the newest immigrants to these shores. That light of freedom is a beacon that shines with American splendor. That’s the hope and that’s the beacon and that’s the stubborn story of possibility that the kid from Stamford, Texas carried right into the corridors of power, and made this nation better for it. Bob Strauss had the story in his heart all along—the way that we will all now be privileged to carry his story in our own, with the deepest sense of gratitude and honor.
In the words of the biblical Book of Proverbs, Robert S. Strauss—zecher tzaddik livracha—may the memory of the righteous always abide for blessing. Amen.