The death of Washington fixer extraordinaire Robert Strauss at 95 this week is being noted as a reminder of a bygone era that has vanished from the scene. Strauss was, by any standard, a remarkable figure in 20th century American political history. The Texas-born lawyer founded Akin Gump, one of the capital’s most powerful law firms and played a pivotal role in Democratic Party politics for decades. He helped elect one president—Jimmy Carter—was a friend to several others, including Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, and served both Democrats and Republicans in high office.
As the appreciations that have been written about his life have all agreed, he was a unique “character.” His keen political instincts, colorful language, and smooth manner helped him amass great influence and allowed him to play both ends against the middle throughout his career. Strauss was said to have embodied a Washington where partisan differences were muted. His D.C. was the sort of place where Republicans and Democrats might have used some sharp elbows on each other on the floors of Congress and on the campaign trail. But they could always relax with each other and, more importantly, do business and cooperate behind the scenes to advance Strauss’s perennial agenda of “making the government work.”
But while Strauss deserves credit for his rise from obscurity as the lone Jewish boy in a small Texas town to the toast of Capitol Hill, we should not be mourning the passing of his Washington. For all of his gifts, Strauss exemplified a kind of politics that was, at its heart, unprincipled and, above all, self-interested. Pundits lament the hyper-partisan nature of D.C. politics today in which ideologues on both sides of the aisle dominate and often make compromise impossible. But the notion that we were better off in an era when “go along to get along” produced a government that was unaccountable and worked primarily to help enrich political elites at the expense of the taxpayers is the product of a dangerous kind of amnesia.
Even if his ability to enrich himself and his clients by positioning himself at the public trough is inherently unseemly, the tale of Strauss’s gleeful ascent up the greasy pole is nevertheless a good story in which it is hard to root against him. Strauss’s allergic reaction to ideology has caused more than one writer to compare him to the protagonist of House of Cards. That seems a bit extreme (no one has accused Strauss of murder, let alone the kind of political skullduggery that the fictional Frank Underwood commits) but in an era in which we have grown tired of ideologues, perhaps it’s understandable that there is nostalgia for a time when a fixer could sit down with party leaders and make a deal that both sides might profit from. Many of us are weary of people like Ted Cruz, with their uncompromising approach to politics that might, at least occasionally, be improved by a touch of Straussian pragmatism.
Yet a chorus of querulous Cruz clones endlessly bickering on points of principle would far better serve the nation than a new generation of Bob Strausses orchestrating things from the sideline. There was something profoundly wrong about the influence of figures like Strauss and not just because, as Michael Kinsley famously wrote of him, he was “99 percent hot air.” Rather it was because a political system dominated by men and women who clearly believed in nothing and whose primary motivation was to game the system prevented accountability and ultimately undermined democracy itself.
We sometimes forget that it was the reality of a Washington in which Strauss was not an outlier that gave rise to the revolution on the right led by New Gingrich in the late ’80s and ’90s and then eventually to today’s Tea Party. Americans may not want their government to be shut down over partisan quarrels, but they also understand that a Congress and a D.C. establishment that eschews ideology is one that is in the pockets of the lobbyists rather than working for the people. It’s OK to chuckle at the colorful anecdotes being recounted today of Strauss’s influence peddling and bipartisan deal making. But let’s never be so annoyed with the Ted Cruzes of the world that we think we’ll be better off with a return to his Washington.