Brief Lives May 2004

Kerry’s Consigliere

For the legendary strategist Bob Shrum, a lifetime in Democratic politics comes down to John Kerry and a final shot at the White House
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Bob Shrum was only thirty-two years old when he first caused a stir in a Democratic campaign. The year was 1976, and the young speechwriter, a former collegiate debating champion who already had a reputation as a brilliant wordsmith, marched into a Philadelphia hotel and left a theatrical resignation letter in the mailboxes of two senior aides to Jimmy Carter. "Governor Carter," he had written in disgust, "I have decided that in light of my own convictions and in fairness to you, I should leave the campaign without delay." Shrum had worked for Carter for exactly nine days.

It seemed an inexplicable act of political suicide for someone on the brink of fulfilling a dream. Shrum had been addicted to politics since age nine, and as a teenager admired John F. Kennedy's legendary speechwriter, Ted Sorensen. "I wanted and worked," Shrum once wrote, "to become whatever title it was in the White House ... that means advising and verbalizing for a President." He had tried twice in 1972—first with Edmund Muskie, whose presidential campaign imploded, and then with George McGovern, for whom he scripted the convention address "Come Home, America"—an eloquent isolationist plea that excited liberals with its urgent call for Americans to turn inward and tackle domestic problems. But McGovern lost forty-nine states to Richard Nixon.

Carter was Shrum's third try. Shrum's purist liberalism—and flair for drama—ended it. Carter, he had come to believe, wanted to increase defense spending, would not divert highway funds to mass transit, and opposed better benefits for victims of black-lung disease. Perhaps worst of all, he had mocked Shrum's revered McGovern. While his Democratic peers scrambled to join the campaign, Shrum was preparing to jump ship. "I am not sure what you truly believe in, other than yourself," he lectured the future President, according to a richly detailed account in Jules Witcover's Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976. "I have examined my reactions closely. I have attempted to justify a different conclusion. But I cannot rationalize one." The very day Shrum left the campaign, Carter won the Pennsylvania primary, cinching the nomination.

Shrum never wielded the power he yearned for in the White House. But his influence has nonetheless proved mighty; over the next three decades it was he—and not Carter—who became a primary shaper of the Democratic Party. More than any other figure, Shrum has crafted the populist philosophy that for two decades has been the hallmark of Democratic politics: the belief that "powerful forces" stand in the way of progress for average Americans, and that Democrats are the only agents of change who will fight to restore balance and fairness. It has become one of the most potent and oft-used strains of Democratic rhetoric, famously echoed in Al Gore's 2000 campaign pledge to fight in behalf of "the people, not the powerful" against the "special interests."

Over the years, Shrum has become the most sought-after consultant in Democratic politics. He has helped to elect numerous governors and congressmen. Nearly a third of the Democrats in the Senate won their jobs with his help. He has ghostwritten many of the most significant speeches of the past decades, earning him a reputation as what one Clinton veteran calls the "dean of Democratic speechwriters." Shrum is so powerful that he sometimes eclipses the very politicians who are his clients. Every four years presidential hopefuls compete in what has become known as "The Shrum Primary" for the honor of hiring him. Last year John Edwards seemed to have won—until, in February, John Kerry wooed Shrum away. Today he finds himself in a situation almost identical to the one he faced in 1976. His candidate is again within reach of the presidency. Only this time even Shrum must recognize the significance. One victory has eluded him throughout his storied career, ever since his early exit from Carter's campaign: Shrum has never worked on a winning presidential campaign. Kerry's improbable rise has given him one more chance.

As recently as early January, Kerry's chance of winning the Democratic nomination appeared doomed, and with it Shrum's shot at the White House. The early front-runner, Kerry was languishing in the polls. But then came the stunning resurrection and victory in the Iowa caucuses. That night, as Kerry's campaign plane headed for New Hampshire, I watched Shrum bound down the aisle with all the enthusiasm that his youthful self might have displayed. There was, however, no mistaking which was which. Shrum is now bald, heavier, and, like every campaign veteran, marked by the ravages of time and stress. Despite his populist convictions, Shrum dresses impeccably, in well-tailored suits and fine leather shoes. He looks like a special interest—or, rather, a caricature of one by the nineteenth-century political cartoonist Thomas Nast. In contrast to the chunky parkas of the Iowans he had just won over, Shrum wore a tan overcoat of lush wool.

Shrum's passion for campaigns seems not to have diminished over time. Beaming, he bypassed the seats reserved for senior campaign aides and joined the press hacks in the rear of the plane. A few weeks earlier not a single reporter would have predicted Kerry's come-from-behind victory. Shrum had counseled Kerry to remain above the fray as his opponents destroyed one another. Other aides had privately scoffed at this advice as Kerry sank in the polls. But Shrum was now vindicated. He went straight for the New York Post's Deborah Orin, one of Kerry's toughest critics, and plopped down. "Do I feel good?" he mused. "I feel really good. I started telling people two weeks ago, but nobody believed me ..."

Thus does Shrum's legacy endure. As anyone who has worked closely with him or covered one of his campaigns can attest, his political skills are not limited to winning elections. Kerry's campaign offers just the latest example of his Rumsfeld-like mastery of bureaucratic maneuvering. "He is a savage infighter," one friend explains—skilled at conquering rivals within a campaign and consolidating power by taking his arguments directly to the candidate. Last fall aides who had prepared a speech to launch the campaign were stunned to learn that Shrum had materialized at Kerry's Boston home and stayed up with him through the night, rewriting it to his own liking. "He plays 'capture the candidate' better than anyone," a former Kerry aide says.

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