The signals from the Strauss nomination On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

June 06, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- AN OFFICIAL of a conservative business group was quoted by the New York Times as calling the choice of Robert Strauss to be ambassador to Moscow "the wrong appointment at the wrong time" and adding: "Now more than ever we need someone who is well-versed in U.S.-Soviet relations and instead we've got a guy who is well versed in the art of the deal."

The comment was meant to be critical, but Strauss undoubtedly was Jack W.Germond &JulesWitcoverdelighted. He is, indeed, the master of "the deal" and proud of it. It is the quality that makes President Bush's decision to nominate him both smart policy and smart international politics.

The message to the Soviets and the rest of the world is that the president, who originally seemed overwhelmed by the changes in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe, is dead serious about helping Mikhail Gorbachev save his nation's economy. The message to American business leaders is that there are going to be opportunities for them in that process.

Bush's decision against sending another professional diplomat from the State Department ranks displays an imagination the president has kept well-hidden in other cases. Although a career diplomat unquestionably would know much more about Soviet affairs than Strauss, such an appointee also would be carrying the baggage of years of viewing the relationship with the Soviets through the prism of the Cold War. There could hardly be better evidence that the Cold War is over than dispatching such an unorthodox emissary as Strauss.

Strauss's skills as a negotiator are legendary. Those who have been involved in political bargaining with him say that he has genius for determining the final, fall-back positions of differing principals, then finding a way to reconcile those positions and walking away with no one quite sure how the deal was made.

It is a skill he demonstrated repeatedly as chairman of the Democratic National Committee when the party was torn by internal battles in the wake of the George McGovern disaster in 1972. And it is one he has shown more recently in his brokering of the deal under which Matsushita, the Japanese giant, bought MCA of Hollywood last year -- a transaction that, not incidentally, produced an $8 million fee for Strauss's law firm. He doesn't work cheap.

But if politics has always been Strauss's passion and deal-making his highest skill, he always wanted a substantive job in which he could influence the direction of the government. Until now, nonetheless, he has never held the kind of portfolio he would have liked.

He had hoped for a cabinet appointment from President Jimmy Carter when he took office in 1977 but instead was made the special trade representative. Although he was credited with a front-rank success in negotiating a trade deal with the Japanese, Strauss was frustrated by his inability to persuade Carter to pay more attention to domestic political matters. He found he could reach Carter instantly on the telephone if he said he had a trade problem to discuss, but that if he called to offer a political warning, it might take two days before Carter would listen.

In 1980 he served as chairman of the Carter re-election campaign, but he never made any secret of the fact that he was largely a figurehead in that overwhelmingly Georgian-directed enterprise. Strauss's frustration with his Democratic Party reached the point at which he talked of running for president himself -- an idea he liked to muse about but finally recognized would be difficult for a wisecracking Jewish wheeler-dealer from Texas.

Strauss has enjoyed a special relationship with the press, largely because political reporters enjoyed his extravagant wit and his skill at poking fun at both them and himself. Asked to say a few words at a 50th birthday luncheon for a reporter friend, Strauss characteristically needled the entire assemblage. "It's amazing," he told the guest of honor, "that in 50 years this is the best #F collection of friends you could come up with."

But his favorite story has always been one he tells on himself. Driving home from a White House dinner, he recounts, he was wondering aloud to his wife Helen, asking "How many really great men are there in the world today?" To which Helen replied: "One less than you think, Bob."

Behind the wisecracking facade, however, Bob Strauss is a serious player, and the message in his nomination to Moscow is that President Bush is serious about building a new relationship with the Soviet Union.

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