What Everyone Hates About Washington

The consummate political insider Robert Strauss embodied it.

Ira Schwarz/Associated Press

It was a lot of fun to read the eulogies for Robert Strauss, the veteran Democratic operator who died at 95 last week. Fun because Strauss was a character—every obituary was full of laugh-out-loud funny tales—but also fun because it revealed some of the enduring cluelessness of the Washington establishment.

Strauss was a lobbyist. He was a big-shot lawyer. He was the treasurer and chair of the Democratic National Committee, George H.W. Bush's ambassador to the Soviet Union, and too many more qualifications to list. Former House Speaker Jim Wright once introduced him by saying: "It’s an honor to have with us a close friend of the next president of the United States—whoever the hell he may be."

He was, in the phrase nearly every obituarist used, the "consummate political insider." He was, in other words, what everyone hates about Washington. He was #ThisTown.

Michael Kinsley understood this in 1988, when he complained—in the kind of elegant, gleeful butterfly-knife takedowns only he can write—about a Washington Post story that labeled Strauss "Mr. Democrat." "It's not that Strauss has conservative beliefs," Kinsley replied. "He has no beliefs, except for his cardinal principle that all the key players ought to sit down and work this sucker out, goddammit." Strauss, he said, peddled reporters "reassurance that there is a Washington establishment and they're in it."

It's been 26 years, but much of D.C. still hasn't caught up. Just look at the un-self-aware quotes that Washington old-timers gave to the press. Here's Tom Brokaw:

I don’t think they make them like that anymore ... In part because he at once loved the game of politics—he knew how to make money in Washington, which is not unimportant, by representing lots of different interests—but he was never not a citizen. He really cared about the country, and cared about getting the right things done.

And First Lady Barbara Bush, writing before Strauss's death:

He is absolutely the most amazing politician. He is everybody’s friend and, if he chooses, could sell you the paper off your own wall.

Al Hunt fondly recalled having been "bought" by Strauss in 1974. Many articles quoted Jimmy Carter in 1980: "Bob Strauss is a very loyal friend. He waited a whole week after the election before he had dinner with Ronald Reagan." The New York Times used Strauss's death as the opportunity to talk about the metaphorical passing of party power. "When Robert S. Strauss headed the Democratic Party in the early 1970s, he was a man of unusual sway. A phone call could change a presidential campaign, or at times, even the presidency itself," the paper reported, noting the contrast with today's party's, which are often in thrall to charismatic candidates (Barack Obama) or splinter movements (the Tea Party). The account isn't entirely convincing, but you get the point. Tempus fugit.

Obama issued a statement, too, praising Strauss as "one of the greatest leaders the Democratic Party ever had" and saying, "Bob was truly one of a kind, and our thoughts are with his children, his family, and his friends too numerous to count."

If Obama's statement seems a bit pro forma and forced, maybe that's because his brand of politics is pretty much the opposite of how Strauss operated. Obama ran for office promising to do things differently, to avoid the greased-palm, cronyist insider politics. It wouldn't be business as usual; lobbyists wouldn't be welcome at the Obama White House. (The extent to which he's kept that promise is a different question.) This revulsion at Straussian tactics is one thing—maybe the only thing—that unites Obama and the Tea Party, both of which draw their support from anti-establishment anger and tout their refusal to bow to traditional authorities and methods.

And the establishment has noticed! As Kathryn McGarr wrote:

With the national Republican Party in turmoil in April 2010, Chris Matthews asked on Hardball, “Is there a big deal in the Republican Party, a male or female boss from the old school, a Bob Strauss, for example, from the Democratic Party?” On Imus in the Morning a few weeks earlier, one-term Republican congressman John Leboutillier, referring to President Barack Obama, said, “He doesn’t have a senior statesman, like a Bob Strauss, who would be down the hall and Friday afternoon at the end of the week could walk in and say, ‘I’ve been around this town a long time, Mr. President.’”

Neither side had a Strauss partly because he was a one-of-a-kind talent, but also because both parties had gone out of their way disavowed it.

But Strauss, a man who liked to laugh and liked to win, had the last laugh—or at least the latest one. Obama's agenda is stalled, his approval is falling, and he faces the very real prospect of Republican control of both houses of Congress for the last two years of his term. The Tea Party is losing steam, losing elections, and being coopted into the mainstream Republican Party. Neither party is able to get much of anything done, and and voters are angry at them; a record number of Americans say they're willing to vote against even their own representatives. People hate it when Washington operates according to business as usual, but they may hate it even more when Washington doesn't operate at all.