Bob Strauss at Lunch: He Knew How to Work a Room and a City

By Jack Limpert

Robert Strauss died yesterday in Washington at the age of 95, and this morning the Washington Post has a very good obituary, by Joe Holley, headlined “Robert S. Strauss: Versatile political insider, troubleshooter.”

It captures a lot of what made Strauss special, describing him as “Gregarious and good-humored…” and “…a smooth-talking Texas lawyer and businessman who became a consummate political insider…”

Two other Strauss qualities came into play as I watched him over the years.

Back in the 1970s I was the editing The Washingtonian and our offices were on L Street, two blocks from Duke Zeibert’s restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. Duke’s then was the most interesting lunch place in town, with Duke always at the dining room entrance, deciding who would sit where. What table you got depended on a kind of Duke power index, which included everything from how well-known and influential you were to how much he liked you. I always got a decent table because he liked being mentioned in the magazine and hoped that one day we’d say something nice about the food.

Redskin owner Jack Kent Cooke had a special table. If lawyer Ed Williams and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee showed up, they got a very good table. Actress Kelly McGillis once showed up with another woman—she had starred in the movie Witness with Harrison Ford and was in town appearing in a play at the Shakespeare Theater or Arena Stage. Duke didn’t recognize her and put her back in what was called Siberia. I stopped him as he was coming back to the front and told him who McGillis was. He went back and moved her to the front room.

One of the regulars was Bob Strauss. I didn’t know him well, but he knew I was at The Washingtonian and he was very savvy at cultivating the press. Another thing he was  good at was the friendly insult—he’d needle people with wit and a smile and everyone loved it.

In the fall of 1979, The Washingtonian had just been sold to Phil Merrill, who had come out of Cornell, worked in the State Department in Washington, and then in 1968 had bought the Annapolis Capital newspaper, making it a big success. Taking over the magazine, he seemed comfortable keeping me on as editor but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to let him know I was somewhat connected.

We had a lunch set up at Duke’s and a couple of days before our get-together I was at  Duke’s and said hello to Strauss. I told him I was having lunch later in the week with the magazine’s new owner and would he stop by the table and say hello.

So when Phil and I showed up a couple of days later, Strauss came by our table and told Phil it was great to meet him but he hoped he’d find an editor who was a lot smarter than the one he had. Lots of smiles and kidding around and I always figured it didn’t hurt my chances of staying on at The Washingtonian for a few more years.

Comments

  1. Norman Sherman says

    Bob Strauss once asked Art Buchwald, Mark Shields and me to draft jokes for him to deliver at the White House Correspondents dinner. Afterwards, he invited the three of us to his office to listen to a tape of his presentation. You would never have known that he hadn’t written it all himself. He was a delight and different from anyone else I knew in Washington.

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