Former Democratic National Committee chairman Bob Strauss was a classic political wheeler-dealer, a ferocious knife-fighter in the partisan service of several Democratic presidents and scores of candidates. But he was also capable of reaching across the aisle when he thought it was important for the country — like trying to help Bill Clinton avoid being impeached.
In the fall of 1998, as the House Judiciary Committee prepared to consider Clinton’s impeachment on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice arising from the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, Strauss was asked by Clinton to make a secret overture to an improbable prospective ally —former President Gerald R. Ford.
In a telephone call to Ford at his retirement home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Strauss asked the 38th president if he’d testify for Clinton before the House Judiciary Committee. If Ford were willing, Strauss said, he would be the only witness called to vouch for the beleaguered Clinton.
As a former House Republican Minority Leader during his quarter-century in the House, Ford thought the idea audacious. “I told Bob there was just no way,” he told me years later. “I mean, can you imagine me, a longtime House Republican, testifying for Bill Clinton before a Republican House?”
White House damage-control experts thought the idea had an undeniable appeal — how could the GOP zealots after Clinton’s scalp ignore the testimony of one of their most famous alumni supporting Clinton? They believed the ploy had a chance since Ford had written a New York Times op-ed with Jimmy Carter urging that Clinton be censured but not impeached.
Strauss was the perfect emissary to Ford. Though often at each other’s throats across the political barricades, they had forged a personal friendship after Strauss made a conciliatory speech at Washington’s Gridiron Club in early 1975. While most Democrats were still denouncing the new president’s pardon of Richard Nixon, Strauss told Ford: “As chairman of the Democratic Party, let me say you are what this country needed.”
Ford was so touched he penned Strauss a glowing letter the next day, lauding his bipartisan generosity of spirit. “It has always been my experience that political competition can be tough without being unpleasant and vigorous without becoming vicious,” he wrote. “Thank you for going the extra mile the other night.”
Strauss’s death at 95 yesterday seems an even greater loss when measured against today’s turbo-charged political environment, where the toxicity at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue left the sharp-tongued Texan dispirited in his waning years for the future of civilized governance.