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Sending Strauss to Moscow is an imaginative move

Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Robert S. Strauss, President Bush's surprise nominee to be the new ambassador to the Soviet Union, has a simple operating credo: The key to success is the projection of "the image of power." When Strauss was President Carter's trade negotiator, White House special assistant Henry Owen asked him, prior to the 1977 London economic summit, for his briefing paper on trade issues. Strauss told Owen not to worry, he'd deliver it himself to Carter in London.

"You don't seem to understand," Owen responded. "You won't be going, so just send me your paper." Strauss snapped: "Mr. Owen, if you get any paper from me, it will be my resignation."

"I told him," Strauss said in a recent interview, " "Mr. Owen, this is contrary to the deal I cut with the president. And I may not be going, but if I don't speak for trade at this summit, I'll have no power, and no image of power and, the only way you get anything done, you have to have the image of power. . . .' I said, "If I don't go to the summit, it's perfectly all right with me, I didn't want this job anyway, he'll just have to get himself another boy.' "

Strauss got his way. It's hard to say whether the ebullient, 72-year-old corporate lawyer and Washington icon or the Soviets will incur the greater culture shock from their new relationship. "The Soviets have never encountered anything like him," says former State Department official Robert Hormats.

The day after his nomination, Strauss _ accessible as always to a journalist _ quips: "I'm no Russian expert, but I've never had a job yet that I understood when I went in to it. I may not be very deep, but I'm a quick study."

Strauss has attained his goal of being at the center of Washington power politics over the last 20 years by maintaining close ties with Republicans, without offending the leaders of his own party.

The Strauss appointment raised eyebrows among conservative businessmen and professional Sovietologists, who question whether he has the right credentials for the challenge. To be sure, Strauss is short on Russian history, the language and arms-control know-how, but presumably there is a huge store of expertise on such staples on tap at the State Department.

Thus, President Bush's choice of fellow-Texan Strauss to replace the retiring Jack Matlock, rather than another career diplomat, appears to be a brilliant and imaginative stroke. What Democrat Strauss brings to his new assignment is an intimate relationship with his fellow-Texans, Bush and Secretary of State Jim Baker, who have been won over to the proposition that both the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev need to be propped up.

The tip-off to evolving American policy was Strauss' carefully crafted statement after Bush announced his appointment that "we have a stake" in Gorbachev's staying in power, "and assisting in every way we can with the reforms that hopefully will take place in that country."

With Strauss on duty in Moscow, Gorbachev _ or whoever will be running the Soviet Union _ will have an instantaneous pipeline to Bush and Baker, as well as a unique sounding-board on how things really work in capitalist America.

A year after he had secured a right to be at the economic summits, French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing criticized Strauss at the 1978 Bonn meeting of the Big Seven powers for what he thought was a self-serving, egotistical report by Strauss on the progress of trade negotiations.

As Strauss recalls it, he responded to Giscard: ""Mr. President, this is a first-rate package.' And Giscard said, "How can you be so sure?' And I said, "I'm sure because I wrote it.' And then Giscard said, in English, "Is it in good taste for one to speak so well of one's own accomplishment?' "

Strauss' rejoinder was to tell a story, to the assembled heads of state, about the famous American baseball player Dizzy Dean: When Dean was chided by a reporter for bragging about a no-hitter he had just pitched, Dean answered, Strauss told Giscard, "It ain't bragging if ya done it."

That's the sort of swaggering self-confidence _ about himself and America _ that Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin can expect from Strauss. They would do well to brush up on baseball lore, Texas slang and creole cooking if they hope to understand Bob Strauss' America. He probably will also tell them a thing or two about how to make a buck _ or a million _ in a market economy, at the race track or in draw poker.

Washington Post Writers Group

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