Smooth Operator

Kathryn McGarr's new biography of Robert Strauss -- Democratic macher, superlawyer, and certified D.C. Wise Man -- could not be more timely. Since the tea-stained Republican takeover of the House and return of government gridlock, Washington pundits have been dreaming of an old-style bipartisan deal-maker who can bring political adversaries to the table and hash out difficult compromises in private. The Whole Damn Deal: Robert Strauss and the Art of Politics is an admiring portrayal of Strauss's career that reminds us how Washington used to work, but it illustrates, albeit inadvertently, the limitations of the idealized deal-maker as white knight and why the nostalgia for that Beltway type is misconceived today.

Strauss's life justifies a book-length treatment. Born in 1918 to middle-class Jews and raised in West Texas, Strauss rose to become chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and to play a series of Mr. Fix-It roles in government -- as special trade representative, then inflation czar, then Middle East peace negotiator in the Carter administration; as a mainstay on blue-ribbon commissions during the Reagan years; and as ambassador to the Soviet Union (and then Russia) under George H.W. Bush. As a young lawyer, Strauss began his career at the Federal Bureau of Investigation before starting a law practice in 1940s Dallas. He then gained prominence in state Democratic circles through his role as a chief fundraiser and adviser to his friend John Connally, elected governor in 1962. His association with Connally in turn brought Strauss into the orbit of Lyndon Johnson and the DNC, where he served as treasurer beginning in 1970.

In the volatile aftermath of the McGovern electoral catastrophe of 1972, Strauss took the reins as party chairman, pulling off the impressive feat of adjudicating factional squabbles while shepherding a process of continued institutional reform. Perhaps his most important role, however, occurred during the following decades, when amid his rotations in government, Strauss became a leader of Beltway influence peddling, building his law firm -- now called Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld -- into one of the preeminent lobbying shops in Washington. A retired widower in his nineties, Strauss still maintains an office at the firm's Dupont Circle headquarters in a building that bears his name.

Contrary to the critics of insider influence, McGarr insists that Strauss's career has a lofty significance. "Strauss," she writes, "has become a symbol of a bygone era of civilized politics when Republicans and Democrats worked together to get things done, when they could do so without fear of retribution by their constituents. ... Strauss was able to pull people together, regardless of their politics, to make government work." The book's implicit promise is to offer an examination of this lost American art of political compromise.

McGarr's prose is lively and her research thorough. She has a knack for well-chosen anecdotes and vividly captures Strauss's personal qualities. A relentless and cheerful self -- promoter, Strauss cultivated the kind of outsized personality that's catnip for biographers -- zesty high living, Zelig-like ubiquity, a quip for every occasion. It's a credit to McGarr that the infectious bonhomie of her subject is made palpable to the reader.

In her introduction, McGarr reveals a fact that her publisher's marketing material somehow overlooks: Strauss is her great-uncle, and she's known him since she was a child. Despite this familial connection, the book only occasionally lapses into the rose-colored gauziness common to memoirs. The problem is less that the book is a whitewash than that it shares some of its subject's own blind spots.

At one point, McGarr quotes another former DNC chair, Don Fowler, to underline her theme: "[Strauss's] life is a terrific case study for what makes politics work in the United States." If Fowler's right, what "makes politics work" has had everything to do with pragmatic backroom deals hashed out among political elites and nothing at all to do with ideology, policy commitments, competing agendas, or popular mobilization.

 

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Strauss's lack of interest in policy and principle appears to have been complete, and The Whole Damn Deal emulates its subject all too well in this respect. Strauss moved through one political milieu after another that was wracked by intense conflicts of interest and ideology, but McGarr's focus on his conviction-free gamesmanship obscures the larger political significance of those battles.

When Strauss got his start in Texas Democratic politics in the 1950s, for example, the state party was bitterly divided between conservative segregationists aligned with Governor Allan Shivers and moderates loyal to the national party. The feud sparked repeated credentials fights among competing delegations at national conventions, long before the more famous intraparty fracases of 1968. McGarr mentions Shivers once but leaves it unclear where Strauss stood vis-a-vis these divisions or on the larger struggle over civil rights.

When her narrative reaches the early 1970s, McGarr devotes ample space to the warfare at the DNC between New Politics liberals and an odd-bedfellow alliance of labor leaders, machine politicians, and Southern conservatives. The book shows how Strauss's pragmatic instincts and penchant for mediation helped to cool tensions without alienating either side, but the reader has little sense of the competing visions underlying the fights, nor of the significance of the party reforms initiated in the wake of 1968 but consolidated under Strauss's chairmanship.

Strauss himself didn't seem to care all that much about the issues of the time. McGarr recounts an amusing moment at a 1976 Platform Committee hearing when he whispered into the ear of one earnest, policy-oriented DNC staffer, "Mike, you love this shit, don't you? You just love these damn issues." Meanwhile, the mobilization of the Republican right in the 1970s and 1980s to a position of dominance within the GOP and vanguard militancy in Washington seems to interest McGarr as little as it did Strauss.

You can't, however, understand why Strauss types are harder to come by these days without understanding the forces that restructured national politics into a contest between two ideologically sorted, partisan armies. Strauss operated during a transitional period when Southern realignment, the decay of older party structures, and the infusion of new issues and energies into national politics gradually transformed Washington into a less hospitable place for his brand of nonideological deal-making. When conservative forces began playing for keeps, Beltway establishment figures like Strauss were unprepared to deal with them. By treating movement conservatives no differently from more centrist Republicans, that establishment helped as much to legitimize the rightward shift of politics as it did to moderate it.

Of course, Strauss got more than a satiated ego out of his status as an iconic D.C. insider -- he also got rich. McGarr points out that major Washington law firms lacked lobbying arms before the 1970s innovations of Akin, Gump and its rival Patton, Boggs. For Strauss's firm, the path to legislative lobbying for hire began with its booming regulatory practice during the Nixon administration's imposition of wage and price controls. Akin, Gump's direct lobbying operations expanded under the stewardship of Joel Jankowsky, while Strauss, though never a registered lobbyist himself, drew clients to the firm by cultivating his mystique as a Beltway power player.

To some extent, Strauss's Wise Man persona was a performance mounted on behalf of his firm's bottom line and indulged by a willing Washington political and media establishment. In a brilliant, brutal 1988 skewering in The Washington Post, Michael Kinsley explained the Strauss business model: "What Strauss really sells to outsider presidents like Carter and Reagan (payment in ego) and to corporate clients (payment in cash) is Washington's blessing."

McGarr has persuaded me that Kinsley's cynical take doesn't capture the whole truth about Strauss's career. But Kinsley was not far off the mark. Politics requires compromise, compromise depends on skilled deal-makers, and it's understandable that the trench warfare of the modern capital would induce nostalgia for the likes of Bob Strauss. But no Wise Man of Washington will be its savior. With the sorting of the parties into hostile ideological camps, the basis of the old pragmatic elite bargaining across party lines has disappeared. Some elements of that faded political culture are to be missed, but much of it -- the clubby elitism, the substantive shallowness, the aiding and abetting of corporate lobbies -- hardly seems worthy of celebration. The old Strauss waltz is finished, and we shouldn't try dancing to it again.

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