AT a speaker's table recently a seatmate of the president suggested to him that Bob Strauss might make a strong Democratic presidential candidate. To which George Bush playfully put his finger to his lips and whispered "shush," indicating he didn't want the comment to be overheard by Mr. Strauss, sitting two places away. This was during the annual Gridiron dinner, when no one could be sure how much of what was said was meant and how much was joshing. But by selecting Strauss as his ambassador to Moscow, Mr. Bush has effectively kept the politically potent "Mr. Democrat" from getting into the presidential race himself or from providing valuable counsel and guidance to whomever does become the Democrats' candidate.
Actually, this astonishing appointment may well have had its genesis that evening when the president, Strauss, and Secretary of State James Baker were the chief speakers.
These three were frequently chatting and laughing with each other. A few days later Mr. Baker suggested to Bush, "How about picking Strauss for Moscow?" The president agreed that Strauss had the qualities needed for that extremely important post.
We have to assume, too, that Baker and Bush relished the appointment's shock effect among Democrats.
But it would be wrong to conclude that Strauss had been "captured" by the Republican administration. Strauss had made it clear to the president (he turned down the appointment the first time it was offered) that his acceptance does not indicate any pulling away from Democratic allegiance or philosophy.
At a Monitor breakfast shortly after the Gridiron evening, Strauss showed that his friendship with fellow Texans Bush and Baker has not undercut his Democratic orientation.
He was particularly critical of Bush's failure, as he sees it, to improve education in America as promised. Strauss says, "This administration let it sit there for two wasted years of young people not being properly educated in this country. The education president didn't educate a soul, in my view."
On civil-rights legislation, he said the administration "built on this quota thing, and it has almost reached demagogic proportions in my judgment."
And listen to Strauss on the vice president: "I think I am reasonably expert on what creates the Quayles of this world. I think he was done a tremendous disservice by the president who picked him - by the way he was dumped into this thing.... I don't know whether he is competent or not. I won't pass judgment on him. But you can't nominate people this way and expect much else to happen. The president made a mistake - Bush did."
He had a mix of praise and criticism for Bush: "He is a Washington government animal, and he likes government and enjoys it and does it very well - better than we ever gave him credit for doing. And he doesn't spend his life knocking government - except now and then when he is out on the stump. And I resent that. He ought to stop that. He knows better."
In a conversation with Strauss right after the Moscow appointment was announced, he provided this succinct assessment: "I have some experience in foreign affairs.... My strength clearly is not in Russian culture, it lies more in the field of negotiations.... I have been meeting with and doing business with heads of state for 20 years.... The appointment, the president feels, sends the right signals to Europe and Russia and the Mideast and Japan."
Just how does Strauss see himself ideologically? At the breakfast he put it this way: m pretty middle-class oriented. I have been all my life as you know. I'm oriented that way in terms of the people I like best, and the people who have always supported me have been in the middle class. And I came from that background. But I suspect I'm more liberal than you think I am."
Bob Strauss goes to Moscow as George Bush's man. But, quite obviously, he's still his own man.