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Robert Strauss
Robert Strauss
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Robert Strauss Interview

Presidential Medal of Freedom

May 2, 2003
Washington, D.C.

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  Robert Strauss

What did your family do when you were growing up? Were there politicians in your family?

Robert Strauss: No, no, no. I grew up in two little towns in West Texas. One was called Hamlin, Texas and the other was called Stamford, Texas. My father was an impoverished small merchant in a community of 2,000 to 3,000 people, in the Depression.

What did he sell?

Robert Strauss: He had sort of a general store. He had a piano to sell, or he had khaki pants to sell. He had ladies shoes or whatever you wanted -- a general mercantile store.

And your mother?

Robert Strauss Interview Photo
Robert Strauss: She worked in the store with him. She was the business person of the family. My father was at heart a musician, but he didn't have an opportunity to pursue it, or he wasn't good enough. My mother was born in Texas, in Hempstead, Texas. My father was a German immigrant who came to this country when he was about 20 years old. My father was selling pianos then, and my mother was helping her father in his little store in a town called Lockhart, Texas, where I was born. My parents were married, and my father was traveling, trying to sell pianos out of the San Antonio area in South Texas. When I was about a year old, my grandfather backed my father and mother so they could open a little store, and they traveled around and decided to open one in West Texas, instead of South Texas where I was born. Lockhart is over near Austin, Texas. The little towns I lived in, Hamlin, Texas and Stamford, Texas, were near Abilene, which is Northwest Texas. We moved there when I was about a year old.

Was it a big family?

Robert Strauss: No. Then, it was just me. I was the only child. My brother Ted is seven years younger. We lived in Hamlin for a number of years and then moved 20 miles over to Stamford, Texas. I guess Stamford, Texas had close to 3,000 people, and Hamlin had about 1,500 people, so they left Hamlin and moved to the city of 3,000.

What kind of school did you go to?

Robert Strauss: I went to the only school they had in town, which was a public school, and I guess I got a pretty good education. I got all I wanted.

Were you a good student?

Robert Strauss: Terrible. I don't think I was stupid. I never really studied much. I never had a great interest. As a matter of fact, I never had intellectual interests as I was growing up, and I was not a good student going through school and through law school. I was always in the bottom half of the class instead of one of the stars.

I used to envy people who had intellectual interests that I didn't have and who had intellectual competence or academic competence in areas I didn't have. It wasn't until I was much older, in my twenties -- after I got my law degree and was even practicing law -- that I realized that while most of the people that I went through school with could write a better legal brief than I could write, or could draw better documents than I would prepare, but the strange thing was the clients came to me instead of them. I learned along the way that I had judgment, and that I had a certain character and integrity that attracted people. I had a warm personality. I liked people, they liked me. I learned then that instead of sitting around, envying people who had strengths I didn't have, that I ought to play to my own strengths and quit being paranoid about these other people. I used to resent the fact that they could do those things. Later, I came to realize that they had their strengths, which were certainly valuable and of great value to them, but I had strengths that seemed to attract people who not only wanted a lawyer who understood the law, but they wanted someone who had judgment, and who they could trust and who they felt had integrity. Those were my strengths, and I would play to them. So I quit worrying about others and played to my own strengths and didn't worry about my weaknesses. I have had continued success once I came to grips with that, and was at peace with my strengths and not disturbed by my weaknesses.

The character that you refer to, and your ability to inspire trust, has taken you into the confidence of more than one president. Where do you suppose that talent for people came from?

Robert Strauss Interview Photo
Robert Strauss: I have said many times to my children and grandchildren that my father was a poor businessman and never accumulated any amount of money whatsoever, but he left my brother and me great strength, and one of the great strengths was our ability to like people, and the personality that attracted people and attracted their confidence. I think that has had everything to do with my success in politics and other things. Whenever I have worked with people in the political game, I have been successful, and it isn't because I was the smartest politician around, but I was certainly one of the most reliable ones.

You said you were a terrible student, but did you like to read?

Robert Strauss: Oh yes, I loved to read, but I didn't read very many worthwhile things. People now are too young to remember Tom Swift, or to remember Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Those are the kinds of things that I read growing up. I couldn't get enough of them, and I can remember the marvelous stories that were in The Saturday Evening Post. I couldn't wait for it to come every week, so we could read the fiction story that was in there or the novel that was in there. Sometimes it was continued from week to week, other times it was in one issue. So I read, and I read newspapers. When I was 12, 13, 14 years old, I read the paper regularly. Today, I guess I read four papers a day, maybe five or six. That comes from a habit of my early youth of enjoying reading current stories. I never was as interested in history as many of my friends, but I was always more interested in the current than they were. So you can have chocolate or vanilla; I chose one flavor.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

What newspapers do you read today?

Robert Strauss: I read The Washington Post to begin with, and then I read The New York Times, and then I read The Wall Street Journal, and then I read The Dallas Morning News, because I want to know what's happening in my home state of Texas. About two or three times a week, I read the Los Angeles Times, because I like to keep in touch with what's going on on the West Coast, and know what the editorials are dealing with there, as well as on the East Coast where I now live. So I cover the waterfront. I read the Financial Times sporadically, once or twice a week. When you've read The New York Times and The Washington Post, it doesn't take long to read these other papers; you go through them pretty fast.

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This page last revised on Sep 28, 2010 11:13 EDT
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