A Different Kind Of Partisan: Bob Strauss, 1918-2014

Former DNC chairman asked Gerald Ford to defend Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal.

National Journal
Tom DeFrank
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Tom DeFrank
March 20, 2014, 7:02 a.m.

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.

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