WASHINGTON -- President Bush nominated Texan Robert S. Strauss, a veteran Democratic kingmaker and one of this city's pre-eminent movers and shakers, yesterday to be ambassador to Moscow during "this fantastic period of change in the Soviet Union."
The appointment underscored the president's aim to put the U.S.-Soviet relationship on a new footing as work advanced for a summer summit that could include signing of a long-range nuclear arms accord and cooperation on plans to steer the collapsing Soviet economy toward free enterprise.
The plainspoken Mr. Strauss, 72, trade representative and Middle East trouble-shooter in the Carter administration, brings to the job a friendship with both Mr. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III, along with negotiating skills and a deep knowledge of American politics.
Mr. Bush said no one was better qualified to "guarantee that two ships -- big ships, important ships -- won't pass in the night for lack of understanding."
In the works for weeks, the appointment was offered to Mr. Strauss last Wednesday during lunch with Mr. Baker at the State Department. He accepted on Saturday, and the Soviets gave their enthusiastic consent yesterday in a phone call to Mr. Baker from Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh, a senior administration official said.
"I enter this administration as a Democrat, as all of you know. It's a non-political appointment, if ever there was one and could be one, and I certainly will come out a Democrat," Mr. Strauss said as he stood next to the president yesterday at the White House.
Mr. Strauss, saying he had to "disengage myself from some major responsibilities," predicted it would be 60 to 90 days before he was ready for confirmation hearings, meaning he probably wouldn't assume his post until well after the summit.
Confirmation by the Senate seemed assured, although staffers said questions could be raised about Mr. Strauss' ties as a Washington lawyer to Japanese firms and to the Archer Daniels Midland Corp., which has done millions of dollars worth of business with Moscow.
Mr. Strauss, who would replace Jack Matlock, was chosen by the White House over several career Foreign Service officers -- among them, the well-regarded ambassador to Syria, Edward Djerejian -- causing the American Foreign Service Association to register disappointment.
But administration officials said there was a message to the Soviets in reaching outside government to what one called "a rich Texas lawyer who gets along with a Texas administration, who is plugged in."
For Mr. Strauss, the nomination caps a decade of achievement that began with a defeat: President Jimmy Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. Mr. Strauss, who held positions as Mideast envoy, inflation adviser and special trade representative in the Carter administration, served as the Carter campaign chairman.
Mr. Baker, then Mr. Reagan's chief of staff, quipped in 1980, "Everything I am I owe to Bob Strauss."
Before long, Mr. Strauss was prospering in his new life as elder statesman and Washington superlawyer. Within days, he had attended a private dinner party in the capital for the president-elect, prompting Mr. Carter to observe, "Bob is a very loyal friend. He waited a whole week after the election before he had dinner with Ronald Reagan."
Through Mr. Baker, his old Texas friend, Mr. Strauss cultivated the new president and his wife socially. Before the first Reagan term was over, Nancy Reagan considered Mr. Strauss a "close friend," as she later described him in her memoirs. When
Mikhail S. Gorbachev was the guest of honor at a White House state dinner in 1987, Mr. Strauss was seated at Mrs. Reagan's elbow -- at the Soviet president's table.
Although the 1988 election put another Republican (and old Texas acquaintance) in the White House, Mr. Strauss' interests in recent years have centered as much on making money as on influencing government policy. His Washington law firm represents a vast list of multinational and foreign clients, including major Japanese corporations and the government of China.
Last fall, Mr. Strauss brokered the largest Japanese buyout of an American company -- Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.'s acquisition of Hollywood giant MCA Inc. for $7 billion -- earning his firm an $8 million fee in the bargain.
The former national Democratic chairman has been largely removed from party politics in recent years, and his close ties to the last two Republican administrations have been the subject of considerable comment from both sides.
At this spring's Gridiron dinner in Washington, Mr. Baker, responding to Mr. Strauss' speech on behalf of the Democrats, noted that "the Democratic nomination is wide open. Even ol' Strauss here has a chance to get it. . . . Of course, he'd have to become a Democrat."