ROBERT STRAUSS has become the Bernard Baruch of this generation of American presidents. He doesn't schmooze with presidents and power people on a bench in Lafayette Park, just across the street from the White House, the way Mr. Baruch did. But since the days of Jimmy Carter, Mr. Strauss has been listened to, attentively and frequently, by presidents of both parties and by the top movers and shakers in Washington.
Strauss doesn't boast about this intimacy. Yet he draws a good crowd of journalists whenever he sits still for their questions - as he did at a recent breakfast meeting hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.
Reporters know how close he is to the important topics of the day. He doesn't disappoint them. "A couple of days ago the president called to ask a question about Russia," he said when asked about whether the president was drawing on his experience as the former United States ambassador to Moscow.
Strauss said he had briefed Bill Clinton "before and after he moved into the White House" on the Russian scene, political and economic. And he made it clear that he felt his urgings that the US provide quick economic aid to Russia were going to be implemented by this administration.
Even as an ex-ambassador, Strauss remains at center stage. "I'm on the phone to Russia every other day," he said. By this he meant he was conversing with President Boris Yeltsin - by way of Mr. Yeltsin's top aide, "who can speak English." "Yeltsin doesn't speak English and I don't speak Russian," he said.
It was Strauss who, after reading a column by Richard Nixon in the New York Times, advised President Clinton to meet with the former president. Mr. Nixon was saying essentially what Strauss had been saying for months: That it was in the self-interest of the US to prop up Russia - lest there be a resurgence of communism in that country, a development that could lead to a reversion to East-West conflict.
Nixon and Clinton had a lengthy phone conversation. Then the two met for a long session in the White House.
What this get-together did, Strauss said, was to soften the old hard-line critics in this country who oppose any warming up to the Russians while, in addition, giving those many conservatives who admire Nixon a good reason for liking the cut of our new president.
When asked by a reporter to size up Clinton, Strauss said that Clinton had captured a "political consensus." "The people are behind him," he said. "He'll get 75 percent or at least 65 percent of his program passed."
Strauss said that Lyndon Johnson, whom he had "gotten to know back in Texas," had also had this consensus running strongly in his favor until the Vietnam War. But he said that other presidents since Johnson had failed to gain or hold this public support, "except for Ronald Reagan."
Strauss said he thought Clinton was "a lot like Lyndon Johnson" in his ability to deal persuasively with members of Congress. But he seemed to feel that Clinton, in his single-purposed approach to getting certain things done (like his domestic program), was more similar to Mr. Reagan than any other president that he, Strauss, has observed closely.
Strauss is a good friend of George Bush. He's also a dedicated and unwavering Democrat who, among other things, was highly responsible for the comeback of the Democrats in 1976 and the election of Mr. Carter to the presidency. He found no difficulty in serving a GOP administration since he believes firmly that partisanship ends at the water's edge.
So he took on the very difficult and demanding position of US ambassador to Moscow and performed in a way that won him plaudits from all sides. At the outset he said he knew nothing about US-Russian policy. But he proved a quick learner. And he then used his superb political skills to forge a relationship with Yeltsin that has provided, up to now, big dividends to the US.
Strauss didn't say so, but in many ways he and Clinton are a lot alike. They both deal personally with problems. With charm and well-reasoned argument they bring opponents to their side.
Strauss is also gifted with the kind of common sense and wisdom that has made him a valuable adviser to so many influential people.