Power Broker In A Power Vacuum

Robert S. Strauss was having second thoughts. The former Democratic National Chairman, legendary Washington lobbyist, and inveterate horse player had just agreed to become U. S. ambassador to Moscow after a week of coaxing by fellow Texans George Bush and James A. Baker III. While the President and his Secretary of State gushed their gratitude, Strauss fretted about his inability to speak Russian and his meager background in Soviet affairs. "We've been in tougher spots than this one," said Strauss to Helen, his wife of 50 years. "Name one," she parried. "I couldn't," Strauss admits.

That was in June. Since then, the 72-year-old Strauss, brought in to promote economic relations, has watched his job description change with each new headline. Immediately after an Aug. 19 revolt briefly toppled Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Strauss looked like a poor choice to deliver stern demarches to the Moscow junta. Just as suddenly, the political atomization unleashed by the failed coup put a premium on Strauss's talents as a conciliator. But how does even a sage political operator successfully represent U. S. interests as the Soviet Union melts away?

EXPERT ASSIST. The new ambasssador has some diplomatic experience, having served as U. S. Trade Representative and special envoy to the Middle East in the late 1970s. And he'll get plenty of technical assistance from the embassy staff and Peter Hauslohner, a former Yale University Soviet expert who's on loan to Strauss from the State Dept.'s policy-planning staff.

Strauss remains optimistic that he'll soon be back at job one: midwifing business deals, especially for that most Texan of commodities, oil. "We will be back to the original mission soon, as soon as there is political stability," he told BUSINESS WEEK on Aug. 24, during his first visit to Moscow as ambassador. Until then, Washington has to invent ways to deal with a swarm of economic and security questions.

Strauss will try in the way he knows best. "You've got to romance `em," he says. Arriving in Moscow just as the plotters' tanks were withdrawing, Strauss in a few whirlwind days met with Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, delivered a eulogy from the back of a flatbed truck at the funeral of three anticoup demonstrators, and pressed as much flesh as he could.

'PIGSTY.' If things calm down by the time Strauss takes up his post permanently in September, he expects to emphasize capital investment as the West's most potent form of aid. And he's sure that his years in Washington will help him find common ground among the republics. "Politics are politics," Strauss said on returning to brief the President in Kennebunkport.

Politics may well be all that Strauss feels at home with in Moscow. A senior aide termed Spaso House, the Moscow ambassador's residence, a "pigsty." Strauss himself learned how to phone outside the embassy only after inadvertently dialing an embassy cook, a fellow Texan, at 4 a.m.

Bush expects Strauss to put up with the inconvenience for three years. "The President wanted a direct channel he could rely on in Moscow in one of the touchiest periods of U. S.-Soviet relations," says a Republican insider. With that kind of confidence from the President, Strauss is likely to wheel and deal with the best of them in Moscow. Now, if he could just learn the Russian words for win, place, and show . . .

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