Obits (and the Passage of Power)

March 22, 2014

Several interesting men who played major roles in our nation died in recent days. Murray Weidenbaum, an economist who worked in the Reagan Administration and played a large role in deregulating our economy died on Thursday.

Howard “Bo” Callaway, a former Secretary of the Army under Presidents Nixon and Ford, died a week ago today. Mr. Calloway also played a large role in turning the South toward the Republican Party. (President Lyndon Johnson said the South was lost for a generation when he signed the Civil Right Act. Right on the loss, wrong by 30 years, so far, on the duration!)

Lawrence Walsh, Thomas Dewey protégé, retired U.S. District Judge, former Deputy Attorney General, and Iran-Contra Special Prosecutor, died on Wednesday. He was 102. Judge Walsh was the man who got to clean up the Iran-Contra fiasco of the 1980s, as bad an abuse of governmental power as I’ve seen in my lifetime. (And no, it doesn’t matter that people meant well, or that they were fighting Communists in Central America. We’re a nation of laws, and if Congress says “no money to the Contras,” that means “no money to the Contras”.) Judge Walsh sits on my heroes list, for he took on a thankless task, suffered a ton of abuse from fellow Republicans, and conducted himself as a professional at all times. He made lawyers look great!

Then there was the passing of Robert S. Strauss, who also died on Wednesday, a 95 year old youngster. You can read the details of Mr. Strauss’ life—New York Times obituaries always provide a wealth of information, and are a “first in the morning go to” on my list—but it’s not the details of his life that matter. It’s the power! Mr. Strauss exuded power, from every pore! (I had a very brief encounter with him—why doesn’t matter—when I was in law school, and it was clear that I was speaking to someone who knew how to get what he wanted. Certainly, that I knew who he was mattered, but the power resonated over the 1000 miles of phone connection.)

We still have Lawrence Walsh-like figures in our midst, professionals who do what must be done, and meet the highest standards. But I’m hard-pressed to identify a person who uses power like Ms. Strauss did. We live in different times. Exercising power means being criticized, and many people are less willing to take the hits. People want transparency, and power lives and works best in dim corners. (Leaders also like the limelight, which does not shine well in those dim corners.) And people want quick, easy answers, a set of desires incompatible with back room deal-making.

Certainly, the back rooms brought us much that is “don’t let the door slam your backside, and good riddance” bad. But with the departure we also lost the ability to make things happen.

Maybe we are better off with our transparent, open system. Or not? Certainly, a return to the old ways won’t likely happen anytime soon. Cable TV guarantees it! But the passing of Robert Strauss provides an opportunity to reflect, for a moment or two, on the loss associated with not having wise men—and yes, they were mostly men—who made things happen.

P.S. Yes, I know about the Koch brothers, David and Charles. Yes, they are powerful men, and while Mr. Strauss was by no means poor, he was a pisher compared to the brothers Koch. And yes, the Kochs have pushed power levers here and there—in Wisconsin, for example—but they use their power, in the main, to make conditions better for their businesses and bank accounts. Mr. Strauss did well by doing good, but he was a man who devoted his life, significantly, to public service, and that simply can’t be said about Mr. Koch and Mr. Koch.

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