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Once the Camel Gets His Nose In the Tent

The case for corruption.Bob Strauss is a name few of the younger generations know, but he was one of the greatest political deal-makers of the 20th century. Strauss died at age 95 on Wednesday this past week. Reading the long obituary, I broke out laughing, but with a bit of sadness. There are too few Bob Strausses left today, but god knows we need them.Bob Strauss rose from the Texas plains to become an influential Washington insider, leading the Democratic party, but also one who occasionally served the Republican party. Most people look askance at lobbyists and deal-makers and we seem to have few in our society’s today, at least few who want to be known that way. But all societies desperately need them. They serve as the grease that elected political officials and sometimes senior executives of major corporations desperately need.Bob Strauss was one of those who epitomized the Arabian proverb that “once the camel gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.”  The proverb was originally a metaphor … for a situation where the permitting of a small, seemingly innocuous act will open the door for larger, clearly undesirable actions. More recently, it has been used both positively as well as negatively. I had it applied to me with laughter and good humor by a major corporate CFO when one of his associates suggested the firm needed more of my services. It was the CFO’s way of saying that my initial presence meant that I’d soon be all over the firm. Ummmm. That was true. Furthermore, I’ve also found that to be true of many of the better consultants. My wise friends at McKinsey are superb at the process and many, many corporate leaders are glad for that behavior. Better consultants can do for firms what execs know needs to be done, but they can’t do for political reasons. And the very same was also true of Bob Strauss.
A lawyer with a quick-wit and a rough-hewn presence, Strauss was invariably included in “the tiny fraternity known as Washington’s ‘wise men.’”Strauss master-minded Jimmy Carter’s election win after George McGovern’s resounding defeat. But Strauss was also the person Nancy Reagan called on to tell her husband that the “Iran-contra  arms-for-hostages scandal was corroding his administration and that he had to make changes.” Strauss was also called on by George Bush to become ambassador to the Soviet Union—even after he told him that “he had never voted for him for anything.”   In 1979 Strauss was appointed Carter’s personal representative to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Years later, an unidentified spokesperson from the LA Times quoted Strauss’s response to the assignment. “The first thing I’m going to do is to go to Israel and court Premier Begin’s wife like the she was an 18-year-old schoolgirl. Then I’ll go to Egypt and court Sadat’s wife the same way.” Then Strauss predicted, “one of those ladies is going to turn around in bed to her husband say: ‘you know, that little Bobby Strauss is not such a bad guy. Why don’t you do something nice for him?”But the piece de resistance was Carter’s comment about his Democrat friend, Bob Strauss, after his loss to Reagan; “Bob Strauss is a very loyal friend. He waited a whole week after the election before he had dinner with Ronald Reagan.”The case for corruptionJonathan Rauch’s absolutely brilliant article in The Atlantic subtitled, Why Washington needs more honest graft, epitomizes the point of much of Bob Strauss’s deal making and life. He begins his article commenting that one positive thing the government shutdown did–a shutdown that wasted billions, upset plans and raised party stinks—was to force the adults in both parties to realize that the politics of confrontation is a poor way of running the government.The kind of backroom deal making that was so successful for a couple centuries seems incapable of working in the 21st century. It’s one thing for politicians and lobbyists to loot the government and make a fortune for themselves. But it’s another thing for the politicians to look after the city, state and government’s interests—and do it behind closed doors.As Rauch so astutely commented, for decades America did a good job of managing honest graft. Pork-barrel spending and earmarks were aboveboard so that politicians lined their constituents pockets rather than secretly lining their own. These party bosses could also twist defiant arms.No so today. Instead of astute party elders doing the selections, candidates are selected in primary elections or caucuses dominated by ideological extremists. Above all, the righteous have waged war—a successful jihad—against earmarks. The levels of transparency and righteousness demanded simply lack a fully human dimension. They’ve become more fruitless than fruitful.So as Rauch closes his masterful Atlantic article, the next time you see some new reform scheme pushed in the name of stopping corruption, remember the wisdom “of another old-school pol, the late Representative Jimmy Burke, of Massachusetts: ‘The trouble with some people is that they think this place is on the level.’”Flickr photo: watchsmart 
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The case for corruption.

Bob Strauss is a name few of the younger generations know, but he was one of the greatest political deal-makers of the 20th century. Strauss died at age 95 on Wednesday this past week. Reading the long obituary, I broke out laughing, but with a bit of sadness. There are too few Bob Strausses left today, but god knows we need them.

 Corruption
Strauss rose from the Texas plains to become an influential Washington insider, leading the Democratic party, but also one who occasionally served the Republican party. Most people look askance at lobbyists and deal-makers and we seem to have few in our society’s today, at least few who want to be known that way. But all societies desperately need them. They serve as the grease that elected political officials and sometimes senior executives of major corporations desperately need.

Bob Strauss was one of those who epitomized the Arabian proverb that “once the camel gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.”  The proverb was originally a metaphor for a situation where the permitting of a small, seemingly innocuous act will open the door for larger, clearly undesirable actions. More recently, it has been used both positively as well as negatively. I had it applied to me with laughter and good humor by a major corporate CFO when one of his associates suggested the firm needed more of my services. It was the CFO’s way of saying that my initial presence meant that I’d soon be all over the firm. Ummmm. That was true. Furthermore, I’ve also found that to be true of many of the better consultants. My wise friends at McKinsey are superb at the process and many, many corporate leaders are glad for that behavior. Better consultants can do for firms what execs know needs to be done, but they can’t do for political reasons. And the very same was also true of Bob Strauss.

A lawyer with a quick-wit and a rough-hewn presence, Strauss was invariably included in “the tiny fraternity known as Washington’s ‘wise men.’”

Strauss master-minded Jimmy Carter’s election win after George McGovern’s resounding defeat. But Strauss was also the person Nancy Reagan called on to tell her husband that the “Iran-contra  arms-for-hostages scandal was corroding his administration and that he had to make changes.” Strauss was also called on by George Bush to become ambassador to the Soviet Union—even after he told him that “he had never voted for him for anything.”   

In 1979 Strauss was appointed Carter’s personal representative to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Years later, an unidentified spokesperson from the LA Times quoted Strauss’s response to the assignment. “The first thing I’m going to do is to go to Israel and court Premier Begin’s wife like the she was an 18-year-old schoolgirl. Then I’ll go to Egypt and court Sadat’s wife the same way.” Then Strauss predicted, “one of those ladies is going to turn around in bed to her husband say: ‘you know, that little Bobby Strauss is not such a bad guy. Why don’t you do something nice for him?”

But the piece de resistance was Carter’s comment about his Democrat friend, Bob Strauss, after his loss to Reagan; “Bob Strauss is a very loyal friend. He waited a whole week after the election before he had dinner with Ronald Reagan.”

The case for corruption
Jonathan Rauch’s absolutely brilliant article in The Atlantic subtitled, Why Washington needs more honest graft, epitomizes the point of much of Bob Strauss’s deal making and life. He begins his article commenting that one positive thing the government shutdown did–a shutdown that wasted billions, upset plans and raised party stinks—was to force the adults in both parties to realize that the politics of confrontation is a poor way of running the government.

 

The kind of backroom deal making that was so successful for a couple centuries seems incapable of working in the 21st century. It’s one thing for politicians and lobbyists to loot the government and make a fortune for themselves. But it’s another thing for the politicians to look after the city, state and government’s interests—and do it behind closed doors.

As Rauch so astutely commented, for decades America did a good job of managing honest graft. Pork-barrel spending and earmarks were aboveboard so that politicians lined their constituents pockets rather than secretly lining their own. These party bosses could also twist defiant arms.

No so today. Instead of astute party elders doing the selections, candidates are selected in primary elections or caucuses dominated by ideological extremists. Above all, the righteous have waged war—a successful jihad—against earmarks. The levels of transparency and righteousness demanded simply lack a fully human dimension. They’ve become more fruitless than fruitful.

So as Rauch closes his masterful Atlantic article, the next time you see some new reform scheme pushed in the name of stopping corruption, remember the wisdom “of another old-school pol, the late Representative Jimmy Burke, of Massachusetts: ‘The trouble with some people is that they think this place is on the level.’”

 

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