Ambassador Robert S. Strauss is one of the giants of twentieth century American politics and diplomacy, whose service dates back to Lyndon Johnson’s first congressional campaign in 1937. He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee between 1972 and 1977 and served under President Jimmy Carter as the U.S.Trade Representative and Special Envoy to the Middle East. He was chosen by President George H. W. Bush to be the U.S.ambassador to the Soviet Union, and later Russia, in 1991 and advised and represented U.S. presidents over three administrations and for both major U.S. political parties. Strauss founded the renowned law firm now known as Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in 1945, which has grown to be one of the largest in the world. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981 and is also the namesake of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas. He spoke with ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in October 2002 about his impressions of LBJ, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and his time in Moscow, including his speech supporting Mikhail Gorbachev and his own less-than-stellar grades on Russian culture.
On Being Jewish in Texas:
People ask me what it was like being Jewish, and I say, well, I really had no Jewish background, except my mother insisted that we know we were Jewish and have some respect for our faith and a feel for it.
Q: No bar mitzvah?
STRAUSS: No, no, I couldn’t spell it. I couldn’t spell it when I got through high school, much less then. But my mother convinced me that I was one of God’s chosen people as a Jew, and I can remember being kind of embarrassed walking around town realizing I was one of God’s chosen people, and I couldn’t say anything about it. Instead of feeling a sense of inferiority, I rather had a sense of superiority and kind of hated the fact that I couldn’t mention it; it would be in poor taste.
On Speaking Truth to Power:
Even after he [LBJ] was old and sick, when he called on the phone I was still intimidated, and I was strong and young and successful. He “had my number” and knew it and I knew it. But as we finished 30 minutes up there in his bedroom, as I was leaving he said, “Bob, what do you think about my policies?” This was during the Vietnam war, and I told him what I thought he wanted to hear, not 10 percent of which I believed, but it’s what I knew the president wanted to hear. I felt so dirty about it and ashamed of myself that I called my wife and told her what I had done. I said, “The comforting part of it is that I know Johnson doesn’t give a damn what I think, so it didn’t affect his judgment at all. He just wanted to hear what he wanted to hear. He wanted somebody to agree with him. It won’t affect his judgment one way or the other. He has enough sense to know enough not to rely on what I said, so I didn’t hurt anything except myself. But I’ll tell you one thing. I’ll never forget it. I’ll never do that again if the Lord ever gives me another chance.”
Since that, I have been in the White House in the president’s quarters with other presidents that have asked my advice, the most notable one being Ronald Reagan when I had to tell him he was dead wrong when his people were giving him advice just to the contrary. When I met with him, Mike Deaver had asked me to come up, that Nancy Reagan wanted me to meet with him. I said, “Why? Does he want to hear the truth? If not, I’m not coming.” Mike said, “Yes, she wants him to hear the truth. That’s why she wants you here. She thinks you’ll tell him the truth, and I’ve told her that you’ll tell him the truth.” I did tell him the truth, and he didn’t like it one damn bit, but he later did exactly what I suggested to him he do, as she knew he would. But I wouldn’t have done that, I wouldn’t have said what he needed to hear if I hadn’t been through the Johnson experience. And I wouldn’t have been totally candid with Jimmy Carter on a couple of things when I was at the White House, arguing with him, if I hadn’t had that earlier experience.
On Richard Nixon:
I developed a more favorable impression of Richard Nixon after his disgrace than I had before…. He and I agreed on China and several other issues that there wasn’t much support for. When I came out to support George H.W. Bush when he was president, with China policy early in the game, publicly, where few people were, Republicans or Democrats, Richard Nixon called and congratulated me on that and said, “You know, I think you and I are the only two people who have spoken up on this issue. I want to thank you.” He invited me for dinner, and we had several nice dinners together at his request, although I must say that I don’t think any better of him nor do I think any worse of him, but I had a better relationship with him than most people, and I appreciated several things about him. See, I think Richard Nixon could have made a first-rate president. He understood the presidency. He was right on some very big issues; he was right, and he was ahead of his time on those issues. They were progressive issues. His was not an arch-conservative administration. And he just blew it. It was that paranoia that got him.
On Relations with the Media:
I always dealt openly with the press, never misled them, never lied to them, always returned their phone calls. One time a very important columnist in this country said to me, “You know, Strauss, I called you last Wednesday and you called me from your car Wednesday night on the way home at nine o’clock. I was already home and you were in your car just going home and hadn’t had supper yet, and you returned my phone call.” I said, “Well, that’s why I returned it. I hadn’t had time all day, and I didn’t want to leave one of your calls unreturned.” He said, “You know, two days later I left the same call for So-and-So,” I don’t recall his name, “and he hasn’t returned it yet.” Then he said to me, “And who do you think I’m going to screw in the next column, you or him?”
“Hell, Mr. President, I didn’t even vote for you. You don’t want me.”
Q: During this 10-year period after you left the chairmanship, what was your relationship, and what had been your relationship, with George Bush, Sr.?
STRAUSS: George Bush, Sr. and I have had a unique relationship for many, many years. We have the Texas background. We ended up chairmen of our respective parties at the same time. We got along well; the chairmen today of those parties don’t have much of anything to do with each other. We talked with regularity and communicated well. As a matter of fact, I talked him into going on one of the telethons I put on raising money for the Democratic Party. I told him to come on and say a good word about his own party and that people ought to all participate in some way, and see if he could raise a little money too on our telethon on our nickel. He did, and he was an asset to the program. It showed the parties were able to work together not just compete. So our relationship was good.
When Reagan got the nomination, I called the hotel the night they picked George Bush, where George Bush was staying. I didn’t think I’d get him on the phone. I was just going to leave word to congratulate him, but he answered the phone in his suite at the Republican convention. I said, “What the hell are you doing answering the phone?” He said, “We’re just on our way out. Bob, he’s going to name me.” I said, “Well, I heard it on television.” I said, “I was surprised.” He said, “I was shocked. Barbara and I were shocked.” I think he said, “We heard it the same time you did.” Anyway, he was going to rush over to be presented to the convention. So later…we had dinner with him that first night in the White House, but that’s after he became President. I just had a letter, a note, from him this week responding to something I wrote to him about.
Q: Could you tell us how this appointment to Moscow, and when did this come about.
STRAUSS: One day I got a call in my office from an old friend who was Secretary of State, Jim Baker. He said, “Bob, come over and have lunch with me today.” I said, “Jim, I can’t today. I have a date already.” He said, “Well. break it and come over here and have lunch with me. I need to talk to you.” I said, “Jim, I don’t break dates….” He said, “This is important, very important. I promised the president that I would talk to you about a matter before he gets back in town from a trip he is on. He will be back in mid-afternoon, and he is going to want to talk to you.”
That piqued my curiosity, so I said, “Well, I will cancel it and come over.” I went over and sat down. We had a nice lunch. Before we got really started I said, “What the hell is this all about.” He said, “Well, you know we have been looking for an ambassador to the Soviet Union for over a year, and nothing satisfies the president. He called me this morning about seven o’clock and said, ‘I have got our man; now all we have got to do is land him.”‘
I said, “Well what can I do to help?”
He said, “Well, you can accept. You are the man.”
I said, “Are you out of your damn mind? And is the President out of his damn mind?”
He said, “No, he said he had been thinking about it and didn’t know why he didn’t think about it earlier. You are a perfect person to go for him. You know Gorbachev.”
I said, “I couldn’t consider that. I am in my seventies, as is [my wife] Helen. It is just not something we can think about.…” I remember Baker saying to me, “At least you will go over and meet with the president about it?” “Well of course I would.” I didn’t want to be arrogant about it. “I just think I am the wrong person. I don’t know much about Russia. I don’t know anything about this. I am too old.”
Baker said, “Fine.”
So at three o’clock that afternoon I went over to speak with George Bush. He told me how much he wanted me to do this. I told him I couldn’t consider it. He pushed some more, a long meeting. I was uncomfortable saying no to a president. Finally I said to him, “Hell, Mr. President,” keep in mind George Bush senior, who was president then, and I are old friends. We chaired our respective parties at the same time. We were very close, good close friends, very good friends.
Anyway, I finally said, “Hell, Mr. President, I didn’t even vote for you. You don’t want me.” He looked back and said, “I cannot believe you voted for that other fellow.” I said, “Damn sure believe it because I did. I didn’t have a bit of trouble. I never considered voting for you.” I laughed and he laughed. He said, “Well you just blew it, Strauss.” I said, “Why?” He said, “You are the only person since I have been President who sat in that chair at this desk and looked me in the face and said he didn’t vote for me. Now a lot of them sat there and said they did. I know that, but you are the only one who had enough guts to say he didn’t and do it with a smile.”
On Addressing the Crowds on Behalf of Gorbachev
I guess it was about my third day there or fourth day there. They had a big memorial service for three young men who had been killed in the coup. One of them was Russian Orthodox; one was, I think, Baptist, and one was Jewish. They had people from three different faiths there at this big memorial service….
When we got there, there must have been, hell, I don’t know how many hundred thousand people. Biggest crowd I have ever seen. I would have estimated a quarter of a million people they had in this big place. They had all the ambassadors from various countries who were going to meet and sit together during this service to show their support for Gorbachev, who had been out of captivity now two days. When [Librarian of Congress James Billington] and [staffer] Vera [Murray] and I and the security guys started walking toward where the ambassadors were supposed to meet, there was something way over towards the edge of part of that crowd, and I turned behind and I looked around. I saw a flat bed truck with some type of microphone on top of it. Just a flat bed truck out there, that was the stage.
I said to Vera, “Vera I think that is the stage. I bet you that is where things are going to take place. I don’t want to go over there and sit in the bleachers. The action is going to be up on that truck.” I told the security people, “Let’s go over there.” I turned to some of the ambassadors and said, “Do you want to go with me?” The Italian ambassador said he would like to go….
When I got to the end of that flat bed truck, the whole Russian power establishment, what little there was left of it, was back there. The first person I saw, one of the persons, was Gorbachev. I went over to greet him, and he greeted me. Very warm, and he said he was glad I was there, that he had been expecting me and was glad I showed up. I said, “Well so am I. Who is going to speak here today, Mr. President?” He said, “Well, I am going to speak. The mayor is going to speak, and each member of the clergy is going to speak for two minutes. It will just be a 40-minute program,” something like that. Less than an hour program. I said, “Well, I would like to speak. I have a message from President Bush” He looked kind of stunned and kind of said no.
I said, “Mr. President, let me tell you what is going on in this world and in your country. People are wondering about you, what is going to happen to you, senior people having just attempted a coup. Nothing could be as important to you as having a representative of the president of the United States stand up and give you his support for you as president of the Soviet Union.”
His eyes lit up just as if a light went on. He said, “You will speak just before me.” I said, “Thank you. President Bush would like that. He wanted to show you his support and the world his support.” So before a couple of more minutes had passed down came a kind of a rope ladder. I found myself helping the clergy one by one get up and down on the ladder and helping this one up and that one down. I laughed and said, “Vera…, you never know what is going to happen next.”
After a half an hour or so, less than that, I spoke. I had a guy, Hopkins, who was my interpreter. He said he was a nervous wreck. He didn’t have time to prepare for this, but we had it all written out. [DCM James] Collins had it prepared for me before I left the embassy. I had marked it up some as we drove over, so it was a fairly scratchy three minutes of remarks. That is all it was, three or four minutes.
But I remember getting up and looking over that crowed and thinking, “Hell, this crowd is three or four times bigger than I have seen in Times Square during the Democratic convention.” We got through it, and it was played over and over on CNN and other networks around the world. It was very meaningful to Gorbachev. The White House was tickled to death. I talked to Brent Scowcroft. I don’t think I talked to the President then. They were delighted that we showed this U.S. support. So my ambassadorship was launched in a very positive way.
On Changes in the KGB and Finding Out about Bugs in the New Embassy
After [Yeltsin] came in, we saw the more dramatic change when he replaced a bunch of the older KGB types…. I had a fellow named Bill Reardon, who was a CIA head for that whole part of the world. He was in an office in Germany. Bill Reardon, he is still around. He is not active in the CIA, but he was one of the colorful figures. When he came to visit, I introduced him to the head of the KGB. Bill said to me, “They really are trying to reform this agency [the KGB] to some extent, but you know, God only knows what is in those files, and I don’t know when we will ever get to see them.”
Interestingly, that fellow who was head of the KGB, one day called me to come over. He said that he decided he had permission of his government to turn over all the information on the wiretaps that they had planted while the building was being built — a six story building was being built on our land there for our embassy to occupy. He brought out what looked like two ordinary suitcases, old-time suitcases. In them there must have been 30 different listening devices.
In the other package were maps going everywhere. Every single one of those listening devices was placed in the concrete of the building we were building there by the Russian workers. They were KGB and were planting those things all over. I was stunned. I didn’t know whether to take it or not. I came back and called Larry Eagleburger the Deputy Secretary of State and I relayed this story to him. I said, “It seems to me I ought to take them,” but I didn’t want to take them until I got permission.
He said, “Hell, I don’t know what to do. It seems to me we are better off taking them than not taking them.” I told him that is the way it seems to me, but I didn’t want to get out of line here. So I called this fellow back. I can’t think of his name, and told him I would be over the next day and pick it up. We picked up the two big boxes, big suitcases full of material.
He invited me out to his dacha with my wife, and he had [Foreign Minister Eduard] Shevardnadze and their wives. He said to me, “What did you think of the material we gave you yesterday?” I said, “I was stunned by it. I wasn’t surprised that you had it, but I was stunned at what you did.” He said, “We are going to turn this around, and that is a real demonstration of our efforts.” I came back and went public with that.
We wanted to use the [new embassy] building. People in the Congress didn’t want us to; there was a lot of objection to our using it. It was just sitting there wasting, going to rot and ruin, and all that money. As a matter of fact, the head of the KGB, the new reformer, said to me, “This will save your country many millions of dollars. You don’t have to rebuild a building; you can use it. Here is a map of where all the bugs are placed. It will save you 50 million dollars. You are generous with our country; we can at least do this.” So that was sort of the theme of that from the head of the KGB. I might add, they fired him about three months later. Somebody over there changed their mind, I guess, about him being so open. He had done it with Gorbachev’s absolute approval.
On Russian Culture: “I would give myself a failing grade”
Q: Well let me ask a question on the cultural side. Culture plays quite a strong role in Russia as it does, say, in France, more than in many other countries. How did you find on the cultural side?
STRAUSS: I would say that on most of these sides, or some of these sides, because of the people I had around me, I would give myself a grade in many areas of B+ to A.
On the cultural side, I would give myself a failing grade. They were accustomed to the U.S. ambassador who had more interest in cultural affairs than I did. The cultural side has not been a driving interest of mine in this country, and it was not over there. I think I neglected that now. We tried to support the various things, theater, the Bolshoi, things like that, but I didn’t do a very good job. I would go sit in my box and be seen where I needed to be seen.
Q: Try to stay awake.
STRAUSS: That is exactly right. I must confess I think when my grandchildren were there, I took them to the circus instead of to the opera. I probably should be ashamed of myself, but I really give myself failing grades.