June 19, 1978 12:00 PM

In Bob Strauss’ West Texas boyhood, the joys of summer consisted of raiding the backyard peach tree, listening to the crackle of the family radio, sleeping under the stars with his best buddy, Clint Sloan—and unashamedly dreaming out loud. “Clint,” one evening’s reverie began, “what if the President of the United States needed a blood transfusion and you were the only person in the whole world with the right kind of blood and they came and asked you to help?” “Shoot,” his friend remembers saying, “it’d be just like anybody else.” “No,” young Strauss replied with sudden intensity. “It’d be a great honor—it’d be the greatest honor I can think of.”

Now looking toward his 60th birthday next fall, the Honorable Robert S. Strauss (the title comes with his role as President Carter’s $66,000-a-year special trade representative) might wince at such boyish naiveté. For in a variety of jobs—including the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee after the McGovern debacle of 1968—Strauss has learned high-stakes politics at awe-discouraging proximity. Less a middle-aged Lincoln than a Tom Sawyer grown craftier with age, Strauss is known around Washington and Dallas as a pol’s pol—a play-along, get-along good old boy with a pocketful of due bills, a self-confessed thirst for vodka martinis and an amiable way of twisting an arm. “He can be smooth as a baby’s bottom or tough as a corncob,” says Paul Hall, president of the Seafarers’ Union. “Either way he’s effective. Strauss is a virtuoso performer.”

That talent for “suasion” (in the favored White House euphemism) is what recommended him for his most recent assignment, as Carter’s personal jawboner against inflation. His mandate is to go head-to-head with business and labor leaders and convince them to curb wages and prices voluntarily. (The crisis is clear enough: Inflation is at an alarming 10.8 percent on an annual basis.) Foot-draggers may be threatened with public scourge and bureaucratic sanction, but beyond the merits of his argument Strauss’ only real weapons are wile and charm. Wearing two White House hats is pushing his workdays to 18 hours—and his wife, Helen, to real concern about his health. But as Carter turns to Strauss more and more these days, the Texan cannot hide his pleasure. “I think I can do this job better than anybody else,” he says, adding, “I’ve never done anything this important in my life—anything that meant so much to so many people.”

In his tiny hometown of Stamford, Strauss evokes fond memories of his late father, Charlie, a poker-playing, cigar-smoking dry goods dealer who was the local Democrats’ adviser and angel. Undersized for high school football, Bob “Scrap Iron” Strauss had a one-game career as a guard (“We was losing so bad the coach put everybody in,” explains Clint Sloan) and did little better as a student. Still, in the 1935 Stamford High yearbook he was picked as “wittiest senior,” as well as “most likely to succeed.”

Moving on to the University of Texas, Strauss began fulfilling that prophecy. He cemented two crucial friendships by working alongside young John Connally in Lyndon Johnson’s first congressional race in 1937. At about the same time he met and married Helen Jacobs, daughter of a wealthy Dallas paper manufacturer. She eventually forgave him for turning down an earlier blind date with her after announcing: “No thanks, I got stuck last year at this same dance.”

Strauss sold shoes to help put himself through law school, then went to work for his father-in-law. During World War II he once said jokingly, “I joined the FBI the day after Pearl Harbor and quit the day after V-J Day”—suffering meanwhile the accusatory stares that were the plight of a hale young man on the home front.

Soon afterward Strauss started the Dallas law firm which he left last year for the trade job, and began the investments in oil, land, communications, clothing and insurance that have made him wealthy. His youth and Jewishness kept him out of local politics until his old friend Connally, then Texas governor, provided him with two power bases: one in 1963 as a member of the three-man state board responsible for granting bank charters, the other in 1968 as a state Democratic committeeman. Of his reputation for working equally well with the ideologically good, bad and ugly, Strauss once observed: “If you’re in politics you’re a whore anyhow. It doesn’t make any difference who you sleep with.” He remains both a pragmatist and un-blushingly candid. “I stopped lying 18 or 20 years ago,” he says. “Not on moral grounds—it just didn’t work.”

Given the range of her husband’s new responsibilities, Mrs. Strauss is grateful he didn’t assume a national role until the children were grown. Bob Jr., 34, manages a Strauss-owned radio station in Tucson and has three children; Richard, 32, is a Dallas bank board president and father of two; and Susan, 27, is a divorced social worker. “We’re still a close family,” says Helen, “sometimes maybe too close. We talk to two out of three children every evening.”

They’re all anxious about Strauss’ punishing hours. They stretch now from a predawn wakeup in their Watergate apartment to a 9 p.m. dinner in front of the den TV. Meanwhile his most demanding exercise is climbing airline ramps. His golf game is a shambles, and he shuns his bedroom Exercycle (“I’ve had it for two years and it has four miles on it and I don’t know how the last mile and a half got there”). As a swimmer, says his brother, Ted, “He can wade hell out of his grandchildren,” and his magnificent Dallas pool is more admired than used. “At the end of a long day,” Strauss once explained, “I like to come home, fix myself a drink, sit out by that pool and say to myself, ‘Bob Strauss, you’re one rich son of a bitch.’ ”

Though they may seem odd credentials for an inflation fighter, Strauss comes to his job with a salesman’s sensibility and a sample case full of metaphors from the dry goods business. “It’s a good day,” he says, “when I feel I’ve wrapped a package and made a sale.” By that measure he has had several good days already. He has won a steel price rise rollback, and promises of cooperation from the likes of AT&T, General Motors, Aetna Insurance and the Retail Clerks Union. He realizes jawboning has never licked inflation before, and he has lowered his sights since taking the job. But what he is doing now is, in a way, his boyhood dream come true: a desperately needed transfusion of talent on which the President’s political life may depend. “It’ll be tough trying to talk inflation to death,” allows Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, a longtime friend and admirer. “But if anyone can do it, Bob Strauss can.”

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