We meet here this morning in God’s house to remember Robert S. Strauss.
You know ladies and gentlemen …
Some enter politics to accumulate power.
Others because politics provides them with the opportunity to implement policy.
Still others are drawn to that blood sport just for the pleasure of living in a world of adrenaline-fed intrigue.
And then there was Bob Strauss. Raised in the hardscrabble of West Texas, this son of Depression-era general store owners got into politics for all of it—the power, the policy and the pleasure …and for many other reasons, as well.
Learning his craft in the brass-knuckles world of Texas politics, Bob became the very shrewdest of political operators, a power broker with few peers, and an adroit diplomat who could be trusted during critical points in America’s history.
But most importantly, Bob Strauss was—and remains—a symbol for the brand of bi-partisan bridge building that our country desperately needs today …especially in this city.
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Bob was as smooth as silk, developing close ties with every American President from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama.
This Democrat was so good at nurturing relationships that he became a confidante to Nancy Reagan. Or as President Carter put it after losing to her husband: “Bob Strauss is a very loyal friend—he waited a whole week before he had dinner with Ronald Reagan.”
Bob revived the Democratic Party after its landslide loss in 1972 by chairing Carter’s successful presidential campaign four years later. And then, he served as America’s trouble shooter in the Middle East immediately after the historic Camp David Accords.
He later became the our last ambassador to the Soviet Union during the final throes of the Cold War—and then our first ambassador to the Russian Federation.
The last two assignments were partly the result of a typical Strauss wisecrack—one he’d made to George H.W. Bush. The two of them were adversaries. But they were also friends. Strauss told President Bush that he had voted against him in 1988 and would do so again.
Not easily offended, President Bush felt it important to demonstrate to Soviet officials that political opposition should no longer be considered treasonous in their country. It should be viewed instead as “loyal opposition,” to use a British phrase.
That was Bob—our “loyal opposition.”
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Bob could make you laugh at his sharp wit and cringe at his acerbic tongue—often at the same time. He was particularly irreverent during gridiron club dinners.
About President Carter he said: “He prayed a lot. But in fairness, I guess you would, too, if Billy was your brother.”
About the second President Bush he said: “George W. thought that “Fettuccini Alfredo” was the President of Italy.”
And about me he said: “Jim doesn’t understand a lot about the Jewish heritage. He thinks that a ‘matzo ball’ is a ‘social event’ and that a ‘yamaka’ is a ‘duck call.’
After the implosion of the Soviet Union, Bob and I went to Kazakhstan to visit President Nazarbayev, who invited us to take part in an “eastern style” sauna. We had no earthly idea what an “eastern style” sauna was.
But after quite a few vodkas and 20 minutes in the heat, Nazarbayev picked up a large bundle of eucalyptus branches and began thrashing me on the back and legs. He said that he did that in order to open up the pores and increase the therapeutic benefits of the sauna.
After witnessing this, Strauss bolted from the scene.
Once outside, he jokingly told our security detail: “Damn. Get the President on the phone. His Secretary of State is buck naked and he’s being beaten by the President of Kazakhstan.”
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Above all, though, Bob was a pragmatic centrist—a one-of-a-kind wise man.
“Civility,’ Bob once said, “does not have to be something that only old men recollect.”
“Whether you are in politics or in the press, it should be the standard of behavior.”
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And so, ladies and gentlemen, I can just imagine the scene when Bob met our creator, who greeted him with a simple question. It is, of course, a question that each of us should ask ourselves from time to time.
“Would you have done anything differently while you were on earth?” the creator wondered.
And Bob responded exactly as he did in 1993, when a reporter asked him the same question.
“I don’t have any regrets about anything in my life,” he explained. “I liked the whole damn deal.”
Well, Bob. We not only liked you—we loved you.
The whole damn deal!
And we really do miss you!
But we’ll see you on the other side!