During the continuing turmoil of the Obama presidency, I’ve often thought of the eminent Washington insider Bob Strauss, who died recently at 95, and I wished he were still around to provide his much needed wisdom.
In my lifetime, each U.S. president from Johnson to Clinton found it helpful to have Strauss whispering in his ear.
I, too, benefited from his wise counsel, because Strauss was a director of Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. during my tenure as the CEO.
In my den, I have a framed picture of the board at Columbia in an informal moment, and each of us is looking at Bob and smiling at something he just said.
The picture speaks loudly.
Bob usually had something to say, and much of it consisted of some story or wry comment that produced laughter.
Of course, he was a serious person when the situation required, but his humor was the wrapping for his often pungent message.
I remember calling him when he was President Jimmy Carter’s anti-inflation czar. When he picked up the phone, he began with –“ You might be interested in this. I have just found one place where there hasn’t been any inflation for over 50 years. You know where that is? It is the two-dollar window at Santa Anita, and we have to find more places like that.”
Bob was a director of many companies and, as he once explained to me, he was happy to serve, but I found that what really motivated him was the use of the company plane.
He was aggressive in seeking law business for his beloved firm in Washington, and he was equally assertive in trying to help his clients and friends.
He was the old-school politician who kept close count of favors, and when he did one for you, he expected you to meet your obligation when he came to ask.
He collected friends and favors, and he maintained an active market in both.
He moved among the rich and powerful and thought of himself as both. Sometimes when I was with him, I found myself wondering whether he was looking over my shoulder for someone more important. But when I needed help, he was careful to listen and he always made sure to separate his Texas country chatter from hard-edged legal or political counsel. When the times got tough, he got meaner, and I was glad he was on my side.
His political insights were honed by long experience, and he often noted the difference between getting elected president and forming a government. His point was that the staff that helps get someone elected is often not able to help form a government or to govern.
The failures of the Nixon and Carter administrations were his examples. Strauss emphasized the difference between the marketing talents that produced a winning campaign and the management skills and judgment required to govern.
The electorate is often expected to accept on faith that the person who says he can govern will in fact be able to do so, but history tells us otherwise.
Strauss was one of a long line of powerful lawyers who moved easily between his private law practice and various government offices.
A lifelong Democrat, he was respected by leaders in both parties, and President George H.W. Bush named him his ambassador to Russia, where he served a Republican administration happily and well.
He was above all a decent and practical man who had enormous charm when he wanted to use it and a steely ambition that drove him in each of his many responsibilities.
He was not someone to cross or to ignore, and he made certain to express his wants in clear tones.
At our board meetings he often sat at the other end of the table from me, and when he became bored by the formalities, he initiated sidebar chatter on political topics with fellow directors such as former U.S. Vice President and Minnesota Senator Fritz Mondale; Dwayne Andreas, a prominent Washington figure and CEO; and Herbert Allen, my chair at Columbia, each of whom had deep political interests.
When I tried to reclaim control of the meeting, Strauss would remind me he was chair of our compensation committee. Then he would ask a sharp and challenging series of questions to remind me he was following what I was doing. He was a worthy colleague who was not easily manipulated.
The nation was well served by Bob Strauss. One hopes there are others with his sense of duty and his belief in effective government.
If he were around today I would feel better that his voice was being heard.
He made a difference.
He did good and he did well.
Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries. He served as the Commissioner of Baseball from 1989-92.