During another week, without a missing Malaysian airliner or Russia grabbing Crimea, the news might have played more prominently. Robert Strauss died on Wednesday at age 95. Not too long ago, he was the indispensable adviser, doer, convenor and political repairman in Washington.
His heyday was the 1970s and ’80s, rebuilding the Democratic Party in the wake of the McGovern pasting, serving in the Carter White House, most notably as the special trade representative. He steered to conclusion the difficult Tokyo round of global trade talks.
Those negotiations benefited from the Strauss way, his wise-cracking, his Texas warmth and charming toughness. The New York Times obituary recalled Strauss disarming his more reserved Japanese counterpart: “Brother Ushiba, you’re crazy as hell!” The room broke up.
Writing for Bloomberg View, Al Hunt, a Washington fixture in his own way, remembered Strauss last week, citing the “joy” he brought to politics, a sense of fun. More, Strauss crossed political boundaries. George Bush the elder tapped him to serve as the ambassador to Russia. Nancy Reagan sought his help during the Iran-Contra affair.
Hunt invites the thought: Washington today would benefit from the Strauss spirit, the capital sharply divided, so grim, humorless, ideological. He has a point, obviously. Yet the temptation often is hard to resist, seeing the past as a better place than the present.
What deserves mention is that Strauss had other reasons for his joy. He made big money as a lawyer and lobbyist in Washington. He was something of a pioneer in shaping the vast expansion of the lobbying industry, including the variation of influence-peddling.
Others have built aggressively on the platform the past three decades. An often-cited finding from The Atlantic notes that in 1974, 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. Now, the share is nearly one-half.
No surprise that money and politics mix. One of the best novels about Washington is Democracy by Henry Adams, first published in 1880. At its center is a young widow who moves to the capital and enters the social scene. She discovers party machines beholden to wealthy corporations, politicians pursuing narrow interests contrary to the public interest, In the main, shallowness, cynicism and corruption carry the day.
Recall that the 1876 presidential election fell into a prolonged and nasty dispute over the result, a deal finally ushering Rutherford Hayes into the White House.
I was slow to get to This Town, by Mark Leibovich, the chief national correspondent of the New York Times Magazine. Published last summer, the book amounts to an anthropological expedition into Washington, in particular, a look at “The Club,” those in the ruling tribe, or seen at the right parties and funerals. There is an echo of Tom Wolfe at his best in the opening scene, the memorial service for Tim Russert, written with brio and biting, funny detail.
Leibovich has been poked for failing to probe deeper, and for missing the good deeds performed in Washington. There is a cartoon quality to the portrait, yet much resonates keenly, too. Watch Washington, and the question often arises: Why can’t they govern?
Read This Town, and the revelation is: They put other things first. And “they” covers both Democrats and Republicans. It includes many familiar media types.
Some lobby. Some consult. Some make speeches and television appearances, enhancing their brand, becoming celebrities and reaping fees. They make big money. They have abundant self-regard.
The Center for Responsive Politics reported that a record $3.47 billion was spent lobbying the federal government in 2009. What was taking place elsewhere while Washington enjoyed its best year ever? The economy cast off jobs at a devastating rate, as many as 800,000 jobs per month, then 700,000, 450,000, 300,000, no month adding jobs.
The contrast points to the insularity that Leibovich sees in Washington. That’s not to say members of Congress do not go home. They do. Yet Washington pulls. Barack Obama and aides made much about how they wouldn’t succumb. They ran against Washington. Leibovich tracks the path of many from the administration who have landed in lucrative positions.
So, there is something else afflicting the capital other than hyper-partisanship, which Leibovich describes as “winking performance art.” Democrats, Republicans and the surrounding cast have their shared objective in the money of the city. That’s nothing new, though some periods are worse than others. After all, Robert Strauss still got things done.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.