On behalf of the Strauss family, thank you all for coming. Even in death, Bob Strauss still draws a crowd.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “It is the trade of lawyers to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour.”
Though Bob would surely have considered Jefferson’s sentiment a … limited view of lawyering, he certainly would have agreed with that last point—talking by the hour.
In fact, the first thing Bob said as he took the podium as chairman of the 1972 Democratic National Convention was not about Nixon or McGovern or party unity. It was, and I quote, “Is this mike on now? You know, I am a fellow who likes to talk, and I sure would like to get these mikes on.”
Bob Strauss lived his whole life with the mike on. Happily. Proudly.
It’s what made him such good company. It’s what made him such good copy.
Talking to Bob could get you into trouble, though—if you weren’t careful.
In June 1976, immediately before the New York democratic presidential primary, Strauss tried to get me to personally endorse Jimmy Carter for president.
I was not allowed to do so, given the 501(c)3 status of the organization where I worked.
A few years later, Strauss cornered me again, saying, “I hear you are talking to New York law firms,” which I acknowledged. Strauss said “I have two responses—one, the New York law firms do not need you. Two, my law firm does need you, and you should join Akin Gump.”
So since January 1982, I have been honored and privileged to be Bob Strauss’s law partner, brother, friend, and mentee. It is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling relationships of my life.
Others can and have spoken about Bob Strauss the institution. The last of the Washington wise men. “The president’s favorite trouble-shooter,” David Broder once called him during President Carter’s term.
Former Speaker of the House Jim Wright famously toasted him thusly: “It’s an honor to have with us a close friend of the next president of the United States—whoever the hell he may be.”
And Strauss had the usual Washington power wall, where he’d hang signed photos from those presidential pals of his. Like the one from President George H.W. Bush, his longtime friend. “Bob, you call that chili? Just kidding, it was, as you modestly said, the greatest. —George”
Commenting on those relationships and the results they got, one journalist wrote that Strauss “always radiated an ability to mend the fence, quash the indictment, seal the deal.”
And all that was true.
Of course, there were also less charitable assessments. Like the former Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough who once claimed “that his vocabulary [was] insufficient to fully describe his estimate of Robert Strauss.”
But Bob Strauss is best described by his own definition of himself: “a centrist, a worker, a doer, a putter-together.”
He had, in his office, a leather sign, alongside photos of his beloved wife, children, and grandchildren. It was a gift from Averell Harriman and it said, in gold letters, “It can be done.”
More than anything else—that was Robert Strauss’s true belief—the belief that it can be done.
This grandson of an actual horse-trader had an unshakable faith in the art of the possible. He had faith in people and the relationships and goodwill he built with them, whether that person was a businessman from across the world or a politician from across the aisle.
He had a profound and abiding faith that, as he once so eloquently put it at a gridiron dinner, “civility does not have to be something that only old men recollect.” He believed that every problem, no matter how difficult had a mutually agreeable solution.
In my church we often sing, “If you ever needed the Lord before, you sure do need him now.” Well, if we ever needed men like Bob Strauss in Washington and the world, we sure do need them now.
Bob Strauss was a true American who believed deeply in democracy and the free enterprise system. And he believed that the highest form of service was public service.
Whenever presidents called on him—as they often did—he was forever responding with the altruism of Isaiah: “Here am I, send me.”
He was asked to revive a Democratic Party so divided and downtrodden that they were days from having the phones shut off.
Bob restored the party’s financial footing and ran the 1976 convention so smoothly that Coretta Scott King and Governor George Wallace agreed to share the same stage.
He was asked to get an impossibly complex trade bill through Congress. Strauss knew it could be done.
At one point during negotiations with the Europeans, he drew up a list of desired American agricultural concessions … writing it out on a nice tablecloth at Geneva’s Intercontinental Hotel. When the maître d’ angrily confronted him, Strauss pulled out his wallet, bought the tablecloth, and gave it to his dining companions.
By the way, that trade bill passed: 395-7 in the House, 94-6 in the Senate.
President Bush asked him to serve, at the age of 73, as U.S. Ambassador to a Soviet Union on the brink of collapse. Strauss responded, “Here am I, send me.”
However, it should be noted that Strauss’s idea of diplomacy involved serving Boris Yeltsin homemade nachos. And Ambassador Strauss once mischievously invited Richard Nixon to dinner at the ambassador’s residence … the same night he was hosting Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee.
But for all that he achieved in his career, the ultimate accomplishment of Strauss’s life—second only to his beloved family—was the law firm that bore and still bears his name.
Washington has many monuments to many great men. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, King. And right off Dupont Circle, at 1333 New Hampshire Avenue, there is the Robert S. Strauss Building and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld. The house that Strauss built.
All of us at Akin Gump are here because of him. Strauss founded the firm, he led it, he authored its value system. He grew it from nothing into something special.
In 1945, when Strauss and his FBI buddy Dick Gump founded the firm, they had no reputation, no clients, hardly any legal experience. Only one of their offices had room for proper furniture. They flipped a coin to see who’d get it; not for the last time, Strauss got the better end of that deal.
They’d run down the hall and ask a nice lawyer by the name of Henry Akin—not yet a part of the firm—“Does this look like a good contract? Does this even look like a contract?”
But they became better lawyers, and brought on new clients, and expanded to new cities. Today, nearly 70 years later, Bob Strauss and Dick Gump’s little Dallas law firm has more than 800 attorneys in 20 offices, from Abu Dhabi to Moscow to San Francisco to Singapore to New York.
For years, Strauss and I have had offices next to each other. In more recent years, we called our wing “the elder hostel.”
And it was there that I had the privilege of getting to know the Bob Strauss that not everyone saw.
The Strauss who once asked me to check up on a lawyer to whom he had read the riot act, just to make sure the man wasn’t permanently scarred.
The big-shot who supported those who worked closest to him. Vera Murray and Kathy Ellingsworth and Tony Robinson were treated like his own family. Their mutual respect and loyalty knew no boundaries.
The man who loved his tables at Duke Ziebert’s and the Palm, but got up every morning to make breakfast for Helen.
The charmer of every woman he met, who couldn’t wait to get home every night to the wife he worshiped and the martini they shared.
He absolutely loved Helen.
For six decades, Strauss was constantly, insistently, urgently saying to her, “Helen, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach, when feeling out of sight for the ends of being and ideal grace. I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life! And, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.”
That was not the Strauss you saw on Meet the Press or in the pages of the Post or in the smoke-filled rooms of the convention.
The man from Stamford had a big heart. And he helped a lot of people. Not just in the ways that were public, like the Strauss Center for International Security and Law or the endowed chairs at the medical center at the University of Texas.
There were countless acts of quiet generosity covering the difference when his DNC staff’s medical premiums rose … putting millions into the firm retirement fund from which he had excluded himself … paying a former employee’s way through business school, asking in return only that one day the young man do the same for another.
Mixed in with all the bluster and glib remarks, there was a refreshing sentimentality to Strauss.
Like at a corporate board meeting when he leaned over and said, “Vernon, look around this room. It was not intended that we should be here—a Jew from Texas and a black from the Atlanta housing projects. I wish my parents could see me here sitting next to you.”
Strauss remained conscious—and amused—that the son of a dry goods store owner had come all this way. Bob was the warmest, kindest, most caring blowhard you’ve ever met. He was also honest, thoughtful, and unfailingly loyal.
That’s how I remember him.
A friend, a mentor—a mensch, if I may use that word.
When he left the DNC, Strauss said—in his typically modest way—“I’d hate to be the guy who’s got to follow my act.”
But the truth is, nobody ever could. And nobody ever will. We shall not see the likes of Robert S. Strauss again.
He has fought the good fight, he has finished his course, he has kept the faith.
And after 95 long and astonishingly productive years, Robert Strauss has closed his last deal, negotiated his last merger, served his last president, hired his last law review editor, flattered his last secretary, given his last interview, bet on his last horse, drunk his last martini, shared his last holiday dinner with the family he adored.
Reflecting back on his life, Strauss would often say he liked “the whole damn deal.” We liked it, too—and we are honored to have shared it with him.
Washington—and the world—will not be the same without Robert S. Strauss.