Point of view

Strauss' death punctuates end of political parties as big tents

March 26, 2014 

Obit Strauss

Robert Strauss died March 19 at age 95.


In a just world, Washington would put up a handsome monument to Robert Strauss, the popular Mr.-Everything Democrat from Texas who died last week. It would also be a memorial to nostalgia.

Strauss, sometime Democratic national party chairman when that office carried real weight, was the unofficial chairman of a club of the old politics that barely survives amid the polarized nastiness that has become the new Washington ethic.

I became an observer in a gentler age in June 1975 when Joe Allbritton, also of Texas, acquired the Washington Star and hired me to run its editorial pages. I inherited occasional access to the genial presence of the private Bob Strauss and his vivid and amusing conversation. Strauss was a lawyer by training, but a vendor of wise and funny opinions by trade.

One meeting assumes larger meaning with the passing of time. The setting was the Star’s dining room, which Allbritton had elegantly refurnished and hung with paintings from his private collection. It was the three of us: Allbritton, Strauss and I. The talk turned to Texas political memories – they as raconteurs, I as eager listener. No topic in their huge repertoire was more absorbing than the mysterious power of Lyndon B. Johnson, “the old man,” as they called him.

Some years earlier, both Allbritton and Strauss had become skeptics of the Vietnam War, incurring the old man’s displeasure. Joe had become a leader among business people skeptical of the war, and Strauss was trying to keep an ecumenical peace between the Humphrey and McGovern wings of the Democratic Party. They both recalled LBJ’s power to exert a sort of political terrorism by long-distance telephone, without bombs or bullets.

Strauss laughed. “All the old man had to do,” he said, “was breathe into the phone. It was like a bull snorting. You knew who it was and why he was calling and you would almost wet your pants.” They both laughed, and Joe nodded agreement, though it was clear that LBJ’s telephonic treatment was less amusing when one was the target.

And what was the point? One point was that a president’s displeasure could still cast its spell, for expectations of personal loyalty counted.

That was the point, also, of a New York Times piece (reprinted in Sunday’s N&O) noting how parties have faded since Strauss’s heyday – a refreshing exception incidentally to the press’s obsession with penny-ante political maneuvering and its neglect of institutional trends.

“The parties,” remarked Jonathan Weisman and Jennifer Steinhauer, “have been overtaken by candidates such as Obama, who created his own campaign apparatus for operations that had been [party functions] ... and by independent groups that now set the tone and agenda for campaigns.”

It is always popular to scorn political parties and “politicians.” But American history shows no shortage of instances when the failure of parties had tragic effects – notably 1860, when the Democrats split and ceased to function as a conduit of sectional negotiation. There have been other, lesser failures, none of them beneficial. Yet how often do we hear it said that our system of government would hum like a Rolls-Royce if only parties were pure and not messy shelters of improbable allies?

Well, the dream has come true, and the death of Bob Strauss, one of the last great mediators, seems to punctuate the change. As the Times writers noted, a presidential candidate can freelance his way into the White House. But the result isn’t a smooth hum. It’s a wreck, because there is no organized system of political loyalties. Presidential promises and programs go begging for allies, and presidents are reduced to making speeches and threats. Obama and his amateurish retinue may have perfected the new arts, but he is the first president whose deficiency of party support has become starkly obvious.

Again, my monument to Bob Strauss and the politics he represented would celebrate the fading memory of old-fashioned big-tent parties of variety and tolerance. He passionately believed in them and almost singlehandedly prolonged their last golden twilight.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., now of Chapel Hill, is a former editor and columnist in Washington.

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