Normally, I wouldn't recommend a book about a public figure written by someone who calls him "Uncle Bob," but Kathryn McGarr's biography of her great uncle, Washington superlawyer and political insider Robert Strauss, is an exception.
McCarr's well-researched book, The Whole Damn Deal: Robert Strauss and the Art of Politics, will do nothing to diminish Strauss's reputation as a quintessential power broker whose influence across party lines is matched only by his Texas-size ego (Public Affairs, October 2011, 480 pages, $29).
McGarr, who has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University, wrote her book after Strauss decided to scrap his own ghostwritten memoir with journalist Peter Ross Range, who conducted more than 70 interviews with him. She draws on those interviews, as well as her own extensive interviews with Strauss and access to his private papers, to ably chronicle his colorful and truly remarkable life. (Range wouldn't tell me why Strauss decided not to publish their collaborative effort, but I suspect it was because he didn't tell it like Strauss wanted him to.)
The 93-year-old Strauss, who is confined to a wheelchair in his Watergate apartment and is said to be suffering from dementia, almost certainly wouldn't make that complaint about McGarr's book, which is marred by its adulatory tone.
Indeed, it is replete with effusive praise from those exposed to his formidable personality and jovial profanity since 1971, when he became treasurer and then chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the Nixon/Ford years, then served as U.S. special trade representative under Jimmy Carter, co-chairman of the National Economic Commission under Ronald Reagan and ambassador to the Soviet Union and Russia under fellow Texan George H.W. Bush. (I shudder to think what he told Gorbachev and Yeltsin.)
"He is an absolute genius at brokering conflict," Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) gushes, while Tom Brokaw tells us Strauss "knew how to make money in Washington... by representing a lot of different interests -- but he was never not a citizen. He really cared about the country, and cared about getting the right things done."
GOP strategist Mary Matalin sends him a mash note, saying "I'm in awe of your history and larger-than-lifeness," and former first lady Barbara Bush calls him "absolutely the most amazing politician. He is everybody's friend and... could sell you the paper off your own wall." Former Republican National Committee Chairman (and Strauss law partner) Ken Mehlman goes even further, pronouncing him "unbelievably relevant today, as he was in the '70s and '80s, and as he will be in 30 years."
OK, we get it that Robert S. Strauss is bigger than life, but the incessant praise runs thin after a while. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating and well-written book about one of the most interesting -- and, yes, important -- figures on the national political landscape in the last third of the 20th century.
In fact, I may be guilty of helping Strauss cultivate what McGarr calls his "incestuous" relationship with the Washington press corps. Shortly after he became DNC treasurer, I invited him to meet with about a dozen Washington journalists in a group I had organized, and he was a big hit. I later would kid that I helped him get his start in Washington.
As McGarr writes, "While his power derived from being a friend to the White House and a force on [Capitol] Hill, those relationships all came down to his personality -- the sparkle in his eye, his enormous and endearing ego, his humor and his colorful way of speaking 'Texan' that seemed to require him to say 'goddamn,' 'son-of-a-bitch' and 'whore' several times in any conversation."
The son of poor German Jewish immigrants in West Texas, Strauss became a big man on campus at the University of Texas after arriving in Austin in 1935. He got his first big break after graduating from law school, thanks to the same means he would employ so effectively the rest of his life -- wielding the lever of political influence.
Hoping to join the FBI rather than enlist in the Army as World War II broke out in December 1941, Strauss's application was rejected because of pro-German remarks his father once made. Strauss explained his situation to the head of the law firm he had joined, who called an influential Texas congressman, who later became Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who assured the FBI that Strauss was a loyal American. J. Edgar Hoover agreed and Strauss became an FBI agent in 1942 in Columbus, Ohio, where his wife Helen was born, before being transferred to Dallas four years later.
After that, he was off and running, leaving the FBI in 1945 to join fellow former FBI agent and law school graduate Richard Gump to start a two-man law firm that would become one of the 40 largest in the United States. He became an adviser and confidant to a succession of powerful Texans, from Lyndon Johnson to John Connally to President Bushes 41 and 43, and to Hubert Humphrey, who persuaded him to come to Washington to rescue the bankrupt DNC and help Humphrey run for president in 1968.
Humphrey didn't make it, as we know, even though Strauss claims he he offered to make him his running mate, and the rest is history, which McGarr chronicles in rich detail. As Strauss himself might say, "Sumbitch, she tells the whole damn deal."